The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) is on a mission to save rare and endangered heirloom cacao varieties around the world.

It’s a lofty goal achieved through the efforts of the global cacao community organized by HCP, a non-profit organization taking an active role in the conservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of cacao.

Toward that end, HCP partnered with Dr. Lambert A. Motilal of the Cocoa Research Centre and The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, to create a comprehensive evaluation of all cacao-growing countries.

THE REVIEW of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements is packed with interesting information regarding the history, genetics, flavor profiles, and cultivation areas in cacao-producing countries. The purpose of the review is to enrich readers with an understanding of cacao origins and migrations, as well as explorations of cacao varieties that have taken place over time, and where future collection efforts should be focused.

Dr. Motilal participated in a recent Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) webinar to discuss the project along with HCP president and executive director Jacob Marlin, also of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, and HCP executive director Anne Zaczek. The three explained and expressed the importance of this work to support the preservation of heirloom cacao in the present and the future.

Chocolate: Complex, Understudied and Full of Mystery

Before the review was initiated, a majority of HPC programs were focused on nursery projects supporting existing designees. While the organization still does that to an extent, leadership felt it important to take an active role in identifying uncommon and rare cacao varieties believed to be at risk of extinction instead of sitting back and waiting for submissions to arrive.

This has been a monumental effort and we’re thrilled [to launch it]. The HCP was formed in response to the continuing loss of diversity, quality and availability of finding flavorful cacao within the global marketplace. More and more farms have replaced their trees over the years with varieties that focused on productivity and disease resistance rather than flavor.

Jacob Marlin, HCP president and executive director

Marlin went on to speak of the uniqueness of chocolate, calling it a resource understudied by science with roots in Mesoamerica (and elsewhere) in a rainforest so complex and interwoven with life and death that it’s difficult for scientists to study it.

The world of chocolate is filled with mystery. From the complex biology of the cacao tree, its pollination, dispersal, and an endless expressions of pods, to the mysteries of fermentation, with each region and sub region having its own unique set of climatic conditions, always changing, never the same and completely out of the control of human beings.

The specific location, soil temperature, rainfall, and habitat where cacao trees grow—their terroir—impacts eventual flavor attributes that every chocolate maker can harness. This is the joy of discovery, the joy of fine flavor, cacao and chocolate.

Jacob Marlin, HCP president and executive director

It’s more important than ever before to preserve and celebrate heirloom and fine flavor varieties, the diversity of flavors, and the joyfulness of what the cacao tree has to offer

Jacob Marlin, HCP president and executive director

“Tasting fine-flavored chocolate is an experience, one both memorable and emotional, but it’s also the consequence of millions of years of evolution and the interventions and impact that human beings have had on its dispersal, genetics, and most importantly, survival,” Marlin continues. “In this ever-changing world, the continued loss of biodiversity, rapid deforestation of cacao-growing regions and industrial farming methods, along with the rapid intensification of technology within all sectors of life, it’s more important than ever before to preserve and celebrate heirloom and fine flavor varieties, the diversity of flavors, and the joyfulness of what the cacao tree has to offer.”

Cacao Review All About History and Flavor

Which varieties of cacao trees are growing where? How did they get there? When did they arise and for what reasons? The review looks at the evolution of power varieties of cacao and how they have been impacted by additional germplasm (genetic material of germ cells) that entered into their [geographic] sphere and how the movement of germplasm affected flavor attributes and cacao genetics. And, most importantly, what has been lost along the way?

The review allows cacao producers and the industry as a whole to search out, discover, identify and preserve these ancient trees and varieties with unique, complex balance–and find flavors before they’re lost forever. 

The flavor origins of cacao and, thus, chocolate are still shrouded in mystery, but with this analysis of the flow of cacao germplasm and its relationship with flavor, the review lifts the veil to allow anyone from geneticists, chocolate makers and chocolate lovers to peer into the complex and fascinating world of humankind’s influence on the cacao tree and the fruit it bears.

We wanted to see exactly what was out there, then put it into a format that nearly everyone could understand. So we accumulated about 541 publications from 64 countries and we interviewed scores of respondents with a team of seven researchers.

Dr. Lambert A. Motilal of the Cocoa Research Centre and The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine

“[We studied] what makes them special. Cacao naturally is found and cultivated as a crop in the tropical belt of the world,” Motilal continues. “It can be grouped into 10 natural genetic clusters based on DNA evidence. We look for different markers that can reveal differences in DNA profiles among cocoa varieties.”

There’s still much work to do to understand the current population and ancestry of cacao: flavor and kinetic contributions, discovering and collecting new strains, and safeguarding the portfolio for the future.

Since cacao is a global supply item, the goal is to understand what strains grow in each country (and region) and how it can best be preserved and cataloged. By discovering new varieties, Dr. Motilal and other scientists can broaden their research while involving more individuals and communities around the world. The ongoing project is looking at national varieties, but also on-the-farm genetic diversity to assess flavor profiles of particular combinations of cacao varieties.

This review is designed to help understand what we have, and therefore understand how it can be best complemented and where we can target to collect. It is intended to help collaborations among people and share this knowledge so that we can have it circulating among all interested in cacao.

Dr. Lambert A. Motilal of the Cocoa Research Centre and The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine

The review is available for free on HCP’s website. Please consider making a donation when you do so as HCP is a strong-but-small non-profit that utilizes resources wisely and to best effect for the preservation of cacao.

“This was a monumental task,” says Marlin. “It took a tremendous amount of human and financial resources. Please be open hearted, open minded and generous to the HCP can continue our work.”

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