A farmer places a yellow cacao pod into a basket filled with pods. Surrounding the basket on the forest floor are countless cacao pods of varying shades of yellow and red.
Nature + Conservation 5 min read

Cacao Preservation - How You Can Help

Sharon Terenzi

11th of November 2022

Imagine sitting at a restaurant and the waiter hands you the menu.

You head over to the wine page, where you typically find an overwhelming array of brands, origins and varieties. However, this time you only find one wine on the list. Puzzled and disappointed, you ask the waiter for explanations:

“Why is there only one wine on the menu?”

“That’s the only variety left on the planet,” the waiter responds.

Although it sounds apocalyptic, this scenario isn’t so far removed from reality. Whether you are an attentive foodie, wine lover or unpretentious consumer, you’ve probably noticed the same kinds of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and other fresh produce at the supermarket year after year—and how each of them tends to be a little less tasty than you remember.

This scarce variety of choices in today’s market is the result of many factors that span from climate change to corporate greed, and reflect a huge loss in biodiversity and flavor diversity.

The produce section of a grocery store: apples and citrus line the shelves with little to no variation among the fruits

Farming for Quantity Over Quality

Farming is increasingly more difficult than it used to be.

Farmers are facing longer drought periods and heat waves, heavier rainy seasons, and more unusual season variation. While fighting natural events, farmers also deal with the pressure of increasing their output, even though their compensation rarely aligns with the high demand for their products.

Add in that the largest buyers of produce in the world don’t value quality and flavor, but only care about quantities and profits. In this scenario, it’s only natural that the most productive varieties are preferred—and sometimes even engineered from scratch for mass production—whether that’s potatoes, chickens or olives. Unfortunately, taste often loses out to high productivity.

Less Biodiversity = Less Flavor

In general, high-productive varieties tend to have a blander and less interesting taste than native, fine-flavor or niche varieties. But if the entire food industry starts focusing on only a handful of varieties, all the others are destined to disappear. No farmer is interested or incentivized to grow varieties that the market doesn’t value. This inevitably results in a dramatic reduction in biodiversity and flavor complexity.

We are ultimately chained to flavors (or lack thereof) that have been selected by large distributors and manufacturers—whether we like it or not. Without biodiversity, we won’t be able to experience the many complex flavors, aromas and nuances that nature can offer.

And guess what: Cacao is risking the same bland fate as much of our produce.

The Case of Nacional Cacao

A Criollo strain indigenous to Ecuador, Nacional cacao belongs to the same genetic lineage of cacao residue found in artifacts, potteries and ceramics from 5,000 years ago and attributed to the members of the Mayo-Chinchipe culture.

As a native cacao variety, Nacional cacao wasn’t engineered for optimal productivity and strong growth like the latest cacao hybrids on the market. It showcases the characteristics of an ancient cacao variety: delicate, rare and susceptible. This means it requires knowledge, skill and thoughtfulness to make it grow to its full potential.

Its aromatic complexity, from hints of tropical fruits to intense floral and vegetal notes, is well known and appreciated by chocolate sommeliers. However, Nacional cacao is at risk to disappear for good, like any endangered species.

A close-up of a cacao flower blooming on the trunk of a tree

New Cacao Hybrids Take Over Ecuador

Devastating cacao diseases around 1920 wiped out half of the Nacional cacao trees in the country. To make up for the lost trees, foreign varieties were introduced. Through crossbreeding, disease-resistant hybrids (like the famous CCN-51) were developed in response to the national cacao crisis. These new hybrids were strong and easy to grow; they required less hustle and produced bigger quantities. In a short span of time, cacao farmers replaced most of the Nacional cacao trees with CCN-51 and other modern hybrids.

These new hybrids can’t compare to the flavor complexity of Nacional cacao. They are meant to be sold on the general market—which simply doesn’t care about aromatic profiles.

So how can Nacional cacao—and other endangered cacao species—be saved?

How To’ak Is Preserving Nacional Cacao

In 2016, To’ak identified nine pure Nacional cacao trees in the Community of Piedra de Plata, located deep in the wooded hillsides of the province of Manabí. After DNA tests confirmed the authentic heritage of these trees, it was time to protect them.

A genetic bank of pure Nacional cacao trees was developed and planted in the nearby Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve in partnership with the rainforest conservation organization TMA. Budwood was collected from each of the nine DNA-verified trees in Piedra de Plata and grafted onto hundreds of young seedlings. This meant reproducing the Nacional cacao trees while keeping their flavor complexity and native characteristics intact. The next generation of pure Nacional trees was born.

The new seedlings are ready to be distributed among cacao growers in small agricultural communities in the province of Manabí. But what’s the use of saving a cacao variety if nobody wants to grow it?

The efforts of To’ak include reassuring cacao farmers that it’s still worth growing Nacional cacao in Ecuador. This means they could keep growing the Nacional cacao trees already on the farm (instead of replacing them with high-productive hybrids) or start planting the Nacional cacao seedlings that To’ak has made available.

It’s not an easy discussion, though.

Industrial chocolate manufacturers, which represent 95% of the industry, are not in need of fine-flavor cacao and are unwilling to pay a higher price than the current market price. Therefore, Ecuadorian cacao farmers are more prone to grow the new hybrids (strong, productive, disease-resistant, easy to maintain) instead of the delicate and less fruitful Nacional cacao.

A farmer, Servio, stands smiling at the camera, a basket of cacao pods strapped to his back

The Future is Regenerative Cacao

To’ak keeps a direct, open and frequent communication with cacao farmers in Piedra de Plata, where we source cacao for all of our products, from aged bars to high-end cacao powder. For their Nacional cacao, these farmers are paid a higher price than any productive hybrid could ever earn them.

But the gain is not only monetary. Unlike hybrids grown in monocultures, Nacional cacao thrives in agroforestry systems together with other plants and a variety of animals. This style of regenerative farming avoids soil depletion, restores fauna and flora biodiversity, and benefits all the other crops that farmers are growing together with cacao.

By sharing consumers’ appreciation for Nacional cacao and the chocolate products made with it, To’ak is encouraging Ecuadorian cacao farmers to keep up their extra efforts to grow and preserve this endangered variety for their own livelihoods, the environment and the preservation of a national treasure.

This same preservation model implemented by To’ak in Ecuador can be replicated in other cacao-producing countries to preserve endangered cacao species, promote biodiversity and offer consumers unforgettable experiences of flavor.

The view from the Jama Coaque Reserve: lush greenery extends for miles. In the backdrop sits a range of verdant mountains

What You Can Do as a Chocolate Consumer

The survival and preservation of endangered cacao species require a market keen to pay a higher-than-average price. As chocolate makers and consumers, we expect farmers to grow these more challenging varieties for the sake of biodiversity and flavor complexity, but are we willing to compensate them adequately for the extra efforts?

Fruitful hybrids like CCN-51 produce at least 3x as much as native varieties like Nacional cacao. To settle for such inferior yields, cacao farmers must be paid at least 3x the price to make their brave choice worth it. This means that cacao buyers and chocolate makers must recognize the superior aromatic quality of these varieties and pay cacao farmers accordingly. Us consumers play a vital role as well. We need to purchase and support the fine chocolate made from these endangered cacao species if we want to see them survive.

Only repeated purchases of both the cacao beans and the final chocolate products—at the prices they are truly worth—can incentivize cacao farmers to keep growing these unique and delicate varieties. This is how we can support cacao biodiversity.

A farmer stands grinning with three cacao pods in hand. Behind him lies the verdant forest