(AGR) Chocolate May Be In For Bitter Times

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Chocolate May Be In For Bitter Times By DANIEL P. JONES The Hartford Courant February 14, 2001

Get your fill of Valentine's Day chocolate while you can.

Chances are chocolate could get scarce and expensive, agriculture experts say.

The tropical rain forest trees that produce cocoa beans, the crop needed to make chocolate, are under siege from naturally occurring plant diseases and from clear-cutting by farmers making room for other crops.

Experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture say fungal diseases that already are damaging cacao trees in Latin America and West Africa soon could cause a shortage of cocoa beans.

"There are a lot of people - in government, industry, users and suppliers - all trying to come to grips with this problem," said Bryan A. Bailey, a plant pathologist with the federal agency.

The supply of cocoa beans is sufficient to meet the demand for chocolate now, and there has been no increase in price. But the plant diseases are hampering production at a time when consumption is rising in developing countries such as China, and in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

"It's just a matter of time," Bailey said, before virulent strains of the devastating fungi begin to spread from country to country. If or when that happens - via a crate of fruit, perhaps, or on the sole of a traveler's shoe - cocoa producers would find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the world's seemingly endless appetite for chocolate, Bailey said.

Agriculture Department scientists are working with researchers from M&M Mars Inc., one of the world's largest chocolate makers, and scientists from other countries to find ways to head off the plant diseases, which have ominous names like black pod, witches' broom and frosty pod rot. When the fungi infest a tree, the beans become blighted and shriveled.

In some hard-hit areas, farmers have cut or burned down the infested trees to try to plant other crops. But tropical soils typically give out after only a few years of traditional farming, and the deforestation and erosion have become major challenges, the experts say.

"What we're trying to do is develop environmentally friendly ways to deal with these problems," said John Lunde, director of international environmental programs for M&M Mars.

Traditional fungicides don't work in areas with heavy rainfall, he said. So the researchers are experimenting with other fungi that are natural enemies of the destructive fungi.

Saving the trees would not only help maintain farmers' income in several tropical countries where cocoa is an important cash crop and ensure chocolate lovers an affordable supply, Lunde said, but it also would help sustain rain forests and the birds and other animals that inhabit them.

"If we don't solve this problem, we've got an economic impact and then an environmental problem right behind it," Lunde said.

Small farms, typically with 1,000 trees or less, produce more than 80 percent of the world's cocoa beans. Cacao trees usually are cultivated in the lower canopy of rain forests and produce pods that contain about 30 to 40 beans apiece.

The beans are sent to factories, where they are roasted, pressed to extract oil - known in the trade as cocoa butter - and ground to make powder. The powder and the cocoa butter, along with sugar and often a bit of vanilla, go into making chocolate bars.

As with coffee, the taste of chocolate varies greatly, depending on where the beans are grown.

Bolton-based Munson's Chocolates, Connecticut's largest retail chocolate maker, buys bulk quantities of chocolate made from beans grown in Brazil and African countries.

"It's formulated for our taste," said Jim Florence, Munson's sales manager. "Our chocolate tastes different. You take a Hershey bar and you take ours, it'll have a different taste." But like most chocolatiers, Munson's keeps its combination of flavors secret.

Pierre Gilissen, who makes and sells chocolate in a shop in Kent called Belgique, said he buys eight to 12 different kinds of chocolate for his formulations. As the shop name implies, Gilissen is from Belgium, a country with a tradition of making fine chocolates. The best chocolates, he said, are made with pure cocoa butter and beans that have been ground into an extremely fine powder, affording a rich, smooth taste and texture.

Less expensive chocolates use other vegetable oils as substitutes for some of the cocoa butter, a practice Gilissen views with contempt.

"If everybody would taste the real chocolate," he said, "they wouldn't want to go back to the other thing."

Because the cacao tree is native to Latin America, South America and Central America traditionally have been hubs of cocoa production. Until about 10 years ago, Brazil was the world's second-leading cocoa bean producer. But witches' broom devastated cacao trees in that country's tropical forests. Cocoa bean exports plummeted from about 400,000 tons a year to about 100,000 tons a year.

West Africa is now the world's premier cacao-growing region. One country, Ivory Coast, has been the leading producer for years and now supplies about half of the cocoa beans for the world.

With so much production concentrated in one area, experts say, a new plant disease could wipe out a large portion of the crop. After seeing what happened in Brazil, scientists and industry experts say there's no reason to think it couldn't happen in West Africa.

"That was a real wake-up call for us," said Lunde, of M&M Mars Inc.

So far, black pod is confined to parts of West Africa. Witches' broom and frosty pod rot are confined to Central America and South America.

"Given time, it's likely - inevitable," said Bailey, of the USDA, "that they'll cross over. We haven't been very good at producing the types of quarantines necessary to keep these things from spreading around."


-- Tess (webwoman@iamit.com), February 16, 2001

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