Who doesn’t love chocolate? Even does who shouldn’t be eating chocolate love chocolate. But apparently, there’s a particular fungus going around that loves cacao just as much as we love chocolates. Only problem is, by devouring the cacao, the fungus leaves us in short supply of the primary ingredient to create chocolate.
Different trees exist around the world that grow different forms of cacao pods. They come in various sizes, shapes, colours and they can all be used to create chocolate. But not all the available cacao species are used by chocolate manufacturers as they have their preferences. This reliance on only a select few species has led to a narrowing down of the gene pool which in turn places the crop at risk of vulnerability to environmental changes and diseases.
One threat that’s currently taking advantage of the cacao’s vulnerability is Monilia or Frosty Pod Rot – a fuzzy white fungal coating. This fungus is familiar within the cacao industry because it devastated the Costa Rica industry in the 80s and led to cacao beans exported dropping by 96%.
The fungal infection is highly contagious and can be spread either intentionally or unintentionally via a single contaminated batch. The increase in global commerce and travel to cacao producing nations has further heightened the risk of infection. Climate change isn’t helping either as it has been proven to affect the cacao tree by making it more susceptible to infection.
But fortunately, there is a potential solution that might still save us from witnessing a shortage of chocolate treats. Wilbert Phillips-Mora who is Head of the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program researched in the 80s cacao trees that were the most naturally productive and tolerant species. By 2006, he had made a breakthrough in breeding 6 hybrid cacao trees that could produce thrice as more as a standard cacao tree. One of his hybrids is less susceptible to Monilia and might be our saving grace in the event of a frosty pod rot pandemic.