Farming cacao is a tricky, difficult business, and the long history of fast moving diseases that infect cacao has made it even more perilous. Diseases like witches’ broom and black pod have wiped out cacao farming across whole countries. Witches broom devastated the cacao industry in Bahia, and also nearly killed the industry in Ecuador. There are worries that the crops in Africa that supply most of the world’s chocolate could fall prey to this disease, which has proven remarkably hard to control.
It’s not unknown for a disease to decimate crops worldwide. The Gros Michel banana was the dominant variety until the 1950s, until Panama disease started claiming farms. This banana is now essentially extinct, and was replaced by the Cavendish variety that you’ll find at your local Safeway now. (Now there is speculation that the Cavendish variety may be headed for the same fate.)
In a heroic effort to save chocolate, Mars, IBM and the USDA are teaming up to sequence the cacao genome in the hopes of developing more disease resistant trees. Let’s hope that their efforts pay off, and perhaps translate to hardier crops of the smaller, rarer varieties we chocolate geeks crave.