A Battle to Save the World’s Favorite Treat: Chocolate

These difficulties make cacao ever less appealing to producers; yields and profits are low, and the average cacao farmer is aging. The next generation seems to be abandoning the family business.

Yet demand for chocolate is rising, especially as gargantuan markets like China and India indulge a taste for what used to be a treat primarily for American and European consumers. A chocolate shortage may be on the horizon.

That is where Dr. Phillips-Mora’s project comes in. The genetic diversity of cacao, on full display in the International Cacao Collection at C.A.T.I.E., may avert a chocolate crisis.

A Hybrid Solution

In the early 1980s, Dr. Phillips-Mora worked to identify the most naturally tolerant and productive cacao trees, then painstakingly hybridized the candidates to create novel varieties.

Breeding hybrid cacao clones is a lengthy process, and experts worldwide have largely failed in this endeavor. But in 2006, Dr. Phillips-Mora released his first batch of hybrid cacao varieties.

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Mr. Alfaro examined a cacao variety from Guyana that demonstrated resistance to frosty pod rot.

Credit
Mónica Quesada Cordero for The New York Times

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Wilbert Phillips-Mora, right, head of the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program at C.A.T.I.E. The industry is “in permanent risk,” he said.

Credit
Mónica Quesada Cordero for The New York Times

In terms of disease resistance and yield, the differences were astonishing. Dr. Phillips-Mora’s six hybrids produce on average about three times more cacao than standard varieties; under ideal conditions, the most prolific hybrids can produce six times more cacao.

After an 11-year trial, a hybrid called C.A.T.I.E.-R6 experienced a 5 percent frosty pod rot infection rate, compared to 75 percent infection for a control variety.

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