Showering our orphan crop with more love, science

Pending cocoa deficit, putting farmers first, and long-term solutions, topic of discussion at AACT session.

October 2, 2013

When I started reviewing the topics for the American Association of Candy Technologists’ (AACT) program for its National Technical Seminar being held at the beginning of this week in Chicagoland, I quickly highlighted the presentation being given by Ed Seguine, the chocolate research fellow for Mars Global Chocolate. 

Bernie Pacyniak

I have had a chance to get to know Seguine a little bit over the years, having interviewed him when he was with Guittard Chocolate Co., and chatted with him several times  after he moved over to Mars. There are many passionate people working in the chocolate industry, but Seguine takes that passion to a higher level. After all, it takes a special person to admit that he actually enjoys tasting cocoa liquor as part of his quest to identify fine flavor cacaos.

During the Tuesday morning session at the Marriott Lincolnshire Resort, Seguine talked about the pending cocoa deficit, the need to put farmers first and the steps that have been taken that offer some long-term solutions.

Unlike other agricultural crops, such as corn, rice, wheat and sugar, cocoa is an orphan crop. And, as the term implies, that's not a good thing; it connotes neglect. As Seguine explained, “An orphan crop is defined as one which lacks substantive, reliable, long-term funding to allow an ongoing science-based program aimed towards yield improvements, pest and disease resistance, and development of improved agronomic traits in the crop.”

Well, what about all these programs we’ve been hearing about, one may ask? Yes, there’s been a lot of investment lately from a range of industry, government and non-government groups and agencies but that goes back only a few years. Unlike crops such as corn, rice, wheat and sugar, cocoa crop yields have remained horribly stagnant since 1930. That’s an amazingly long time to be flat-lining crop productivity.

Add to that an increased demand for chocolate during the next decade — a projected shortfall of 1 million metric tons by 2020 — and suddenly images of shortages and price spirals start to appear. Moreover, as Seguine pointed out, one can expect an even higher shortfall “every decade thereafter for the next several decades.” Scary stuff.

But Seguine has never been a “gloom and doom” kind of a guy. A realist, mind you, but not a pessimist. As he went on to point out, there are several specific characteristics associated with cocoa that one needs to keep in mind.

First, it’s a “smaller holder crop,” meaning that the majority of the world’s production comes from farms ranging between two and five hectares a piece. If you do the math, which Seguine luckily did for the attendees and me, a four-hectare farm that’s producing about 2 metric tons annually brings in about $3,696 at today’s market prices. Figure the farmer has a family of six, that’s comes out to a daily average income of $1.69 per person. As our chocolate fellow went on to emphasize, the Millennium Development Goal’s definition of extreme poverty is $1.25 per person, per day. That’s not really a great incentive for anyone to want to be a cocoa farmer.

As Seguine later told me after his presentation, neither consumers nor chocolate supply chain participants are willing to up the price of chocolate by 8 to 10 times to rectify the situation. That’s just not feasible.

What is feasible, however, is dramatically improving the yield. Thanks to the evolution of genomic science, the cocoa researchers have made great strides in introducing new cocoa clones that promise disease resistance, yield gains and, also critically important, flavor development.

Moreover, these gains have allowed researchers to speed up cloning efficiency from seven years (typical length for a cocoa tree to mature) to seven months. Now that fast-tracking cocoa breeding. So thanks to science and some really dedicated scientists, there’s hope for the future. Nonetheless, as Seguine emphasized, there’s still plenty left to do to ensure that future generations —be they in the field or in a food store —have the opportunity to enjoy fine-flavored chocolate. It’s clear that there needs to be even more collaboration amongst industry participants to provide a secure livelihood for famers, which, in turn, guarantees a secure supply chain of cocoa.

It’s a good thing we have people like Seguine reminding us of what’s necessary to keep the “food of the gods” plentiful for us mortals here on earth

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