Dark chocolate is a much loved treat or even daily habit, and as a consumer you’ll find a dizzying array of choices and claims. In this article you’ll learn how to identify erroneous and elitist claims using cacao genetics. We hope to inspire cacao lovers and producers alike to abandon myopic conversations about genetic classification, and pay attention to the larger systems at play affecting Theobroma cacao, the cacao tree. These topics include dizzying ecosystem loss, poor incentives for quality in commodity cacao pricing, and the covert push for acceptance of genetically modified cacao. We know that if you stick with us for a few short pages, you’ll be able to dazzle and educate your friends with some truly insider understanding of cacao.
Marketing of cacao genetics is frequent these days. Most popular articles about cacao will mention three varieties: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Most often ceremonial cacao companies using genetic claims to market their cacao will assert theirs is pure Criollo and, therefore, the best.
However, the three-tier classification method is completely outdated, and the assertion that a pure cacao genetic profile is superior is severely mis-informed. We’ll break down why cacao classification is far more complicated, why marketing Criollo cacao smacks of elitism, and why we think the current conversation about cacao genetics is myopic and should be re-focused on broader ecological and systemic implications.
Cacao is very difficult to neatly classify. The originally popularized three-tier classification system has long since been replaced with a more complex, eleven-tier classification system of so-called “primary strains”, but most of the public isn’t aware of this. These are currently: Amazon, Amelonado, Beniano, Bicolor, Contamana, Criollo, Grandiflorum, Guiana, Jurua, Nacional, and Purus.
Surprisingly, even this eleven-tier “primary strain” classification system is falling out of favor, and instead, classification is beginning to revolve around so-called “cultivar strains”, of which there are currently THIRTY-SEVEN. To even begin to explain here how primary strains and cultivar strains are defined very quickly requires a college level understanding of biology, chemistry, and genetics, so we’ll spare you the details. In short, using thirty-seven cultivar strains may be useful for cacao specialists and agronomists who understand the complexities, but the general public will be very confused by this.
To suppose that cacao trees can be grouped into three, eleven, or even thirty-seven categories also ignores the biological fact that cacao trees with different genetic cultivars cross pollinate ALL the time! What’s fascinating about this hybridization is that it is actually ecologically beneficial because compared to a pure cultivar, higher yields and are more resistant to diseases and pests; their flavor also tends to be more complex. So a typical genetic profile of a cacao tree may actually have varying percentages of seven or eight different strains, best visualized with a pie chart. So you can understand why with both thirty-seven cultivars and frequent hybridization of cacao, the genetic profile of a cacao quickly gets hard to keep track of.
Figure 1: The hybrid genetic profile of the cacao we use from Belize, using primary strains.
An alternative proposal for public consumption that is gaining traction is to simply use local region of origin descriptors for cacao. This approach abandons the unnecessary reductionist exercise of classifying cacao by genetic profile that is primarily useful for specialists, and instead encourages the public to celebrate cacao as a species capable of adapting uniquely to the region where it grows. We believe there is far more meaning to derive from highlighting a place of origin’s unique culture and ecosystem than some obscure information about genetics that takes a degree in agronomy to properly understand.
Given all this complexity, why is it increasingly trendy for cacao companies to claim that their “criollo” cacao is the best? To us, it smacks of genetic elitism in this case applied to cacao and manipulated for monetary benefit to stand out in a crowded and confused market. The cacao genome is similarly complex to homo sapiens, and singling out a single varietal to promote as superior is both erroneous and echoes the same genetic elitism employed by various political leaders to gain power, now shunned when we look at history.
It’s not something that will lead the ceremonial cacao industry to success or cacao lovers to a deeper connection with cacao. If the events of 2020 in the U.S. have highlighted anything, it’s the need to move towards full inclusion and equal opportunity for people of all cultures and ancestries. Marketing genetic primacy in cacao needs to be recognized as perpetuating the same genetic reductionism and elitism that fuels harmful racism and as a missed opportunity to rally consumers behind important topics that would support a resilient supply of cacao.
So our recommendation? If someone tells you their cacao is the best because of a genetic reason, walk away and find a more integrous and informed source. Or, if you are up for the conversation, offer them your knowledge from this article. Because we believe that cacao marketing with genetics is usually not malicious, but mostly just terribly misinformed.
There have been some atrocious misadventures in industrial cacao growing, such as the development of cacao strains like CCN51, which are just optimized for productivity at the expense of everything else , such as flavor and spirit. So, it’s quite likely someone marketing cacao genetics is attempting to differentiate themselves from these harmful practices. But as should be clear by now, cacao genetics are complex, and marketers need to take responsibility, as quite a lot of damage can result from ignoring the complexity of nature by pushing a buzzword in favor of monetary gain.
At Firefly, we work with small cacao farmers in six different countries to source our ceremonial cacao. The cacao from each region has a unique and completely different hybrid genetic profile, and none of those differences in genetics make one cacao objectively better than another. Rather, we’ve found that each particular genetic profile is uniquely suited to where the cacao is grown, and that is part of the reason we market our cacao based on country and region of origin. As long as it isn’t an industrial strain optimized for output, we view genetics as minimally important because many other steps in cacao growing and processing impact the flavor and potency to an equal or greater degree, such as the regional soils and weather patterns, the local ecosystem, the fermentation (arguably the most important), the roasting, the conching of the cacao, and the energy of the people working with it.
As far as cacao genetics go, here’s what we think is most important for the public to know. We’ve already covered that genetic complexity is actually beneficial, and that cacao is a regionally specific plant enmeshed with the ecosystem and culture of a place. Next, we’ll go into three crucial topics that we need to pay attention to in order to ensure a resilient supply of cacao in the future:
If the public awareness pushed for ecosystem conservation, cacao pricing that reflected quality, and a ban on genetically engineered cacao, we would be doing the best thing we could for the cacao tree as a species, and for our planet’s biodiversity and resilience in general.
We’re going to leave you with a hopeful story about cacao. Cacao is in the Theobroma genus, in the family Malvaceae and sub-family Bytnnerioideae. The Theobroma genus consists of twenty-two species of small understory trees native to the Amazon tropical rainforest. The genus has been dated to over ten million years old, and cacao is considered one of the oldest trees in the genus. By working with cacao intentionally, we can connect to a plant spirit that has been around since before the Andes mountains rose up on the South American continent. This is truly working with an elder plant of the earth. So, it is no wonder at all that a cup of cacao can have a profound and highly intelligent effect on human consciousness.