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Using Cacao to Reverse Deforestation

Guest Blog Share By: Jerry Toth, To’ak Chocolate

Short Summary

Despite its “forest-friendly” reputation, cacao farming is actually causing deforestation in some parts of the world. Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse that trend. This is what we’ve been working on in Ecuador.  

We’re using cacao trees to help restore forest on degraded agricultural land. It’s one element of a holistic regenerative agroforestry project that combines cacao trees with a diversity of tall native shade trees, fruit trees, and other food crops like bananas and plantains.

This approach gives a boost to farmer incomes and local food security, removes CO2 from the atmosphere, and improves the overall health of the ecosystem. It’s an example of how businesses, conservationists, and local farmers can join forces to help regenerate the forest rather than cut it down.

We call it Regenerative Cacao.

***

This project is in partnership with TMA (Third Millennium Alliance), a nonprofit rainforest conservation organization that has been protecting and restoring forest in Ecuador since 2007. Additional funding was provided by MOCCA (Maximizando Oportunidades en Café y Cacao en las Américas).

Cacao farmer Dany is harvesting a single cacao pod hanging from its branch

How Eco-Friendly is Cacao Farming?

The eco-friendliness of cacao farming entirely depends on where and how the cacao trees are planted. In the worst of cases, people cut down a native forest to make way for a monoculture plantation of cacao. In the context of both biodiversity and climate change, this is a bad outcome. Native forests store 4x as much carbon and 35x more species than cacao monocultures.

And yet, clearing native forests to plant monocultures is how most new cacao plantations are created throughout the tropics. A lot of trees are being cut down in the name of chocolate.

Regenerative agroforestry, on the other hand, is a different story. That’s what this article is about to explore.

For a deeper dive into the ecological pros and cons of cacao farming, check out “How Eco-Friendly is Chocolate and Cacao Farming?” 

Cacao Monoculture (left) vs Cacao Agroforestry (right)

Cacao & Agroforestry

Cacao trees are naturally adapted to survive and thrive in the understory of the tropical forest. In other words, they grow well in the shade of bigger trees. Therein lies the advantage of cacao farming in the realm of tropical forest restoration.

It bears mentioning that some high-yield/low-quality cacao cultivars (namely, CCN-51) have been bred to prefer full sunlight. Most heirloom varieties, however, actually need to grow in the shade, especially when they’re young.

Cacao trees can be planted in combination with a diverse array of other food-producing trees and native trees. That’s what agroforestry is—it’s an agricultural method that grows crops in the form of a forest.

Regenerative agroforestry uses this principle as a mechanism for forest restoration. One of the benefits of this approach is a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Other happy byproducts include soil conservation, watershed protection, and biodiversity preservation.

The cacao that is harvested from a regenerative agroforestry system is called Regenerative Cacao.

Definitions

Agroforestry: Cultivating crops in the form of a forest.

Cacao Agroforestry: Agroforestry that includes cacao trees grown in the shade of taller trees.

Regenerative Agroforestry: Using agroforestry as a mechanism to restore forest on degraded land.

Regenerative Cacao: Cacao that is harvested from a regenerative agroforestry system. 

an illustration of cacao agroforestry - cacao trees are growing beneath the shade of other species of trees in the forest

To’ak and TMA

Regenerative agroforestry is a strategy we’ve been experimenting with for over a decade and a half. At this point, I should explain that when I say “we,” I mean both TMA and To’ak. I co-founded TMA in 2007 with a few like-minded conservationists. Five years later, I co-founded To’ak with a few like-minded entrepreneurs.

Both organizations have been working together on cacao genetics and agroforestry dating back to 2018, when TMA and To’ak jointly created a genetic bank of 100% pure Ancient Nacional cacao trees in the Jama-Coaque Reserve. The genetic bank is our collective effort to prevent the extinction of one of the most legendary heirloom cacao varieties on earth, and to nurse it back to health.

Our regenerative cacao project is the next step in that process: it’s the part where we distribute the seedlings of this historic cacao variety to local farmers as a mechanism for forest restoration.

But this story has its roots in earlier efforts—some of which didn’t work well.

cacao farmer Marquez kneels as he places a seedling in black soil

The Failures Before We Got It Right

Coastal Ecuador, which is part of a global biodiversity hotspot, is also one of the most deforested ecosystems in South America. Much of the forest has been converted to cattle pasture and slash-and-burn corn plantations.

TMA has been experimenting with different ways to encourage reforestation among local landholders for over fifteen years, with mixed results. We ultimately learned that it’s very difficult to convince people to plant trees unless those trees will provide them with food, income, or both.

Simply handing out cacao seedlings to farmers, with a vague promise to help them find a good buyer, also does not work well. (We tried it. Doesn’t really work.) Directly planting cacao trees on people’s properties (with their help) doesn’t work either; once the trees are planted, landholders may not nurture them to maturity unless there is a strong incentive to do so. That’s why simply “planting trees” is usually not an effective way to truly reforest land.

Eventually, we learned our lesson. We identified four main obstacles that were impeding farmers from reforesting their own land:

  1. Lack of seedlings and other basic equipment, like fencing (easy to solve)
  2. Lack of water access (more difficult to solve, but surmountable)
  3. Lack of market access for tree crops (much more difficult than most people think)
  4. The opportunity cost of other activities like cattle ranching (this is where most projects fail)

Our approach with this project was to systematically overcome each of these obstacles.

Mario kneels as he connects a rubber hose to the bottom of a blue vat (irrigation system)

Making Agroforestry the Path of Least Resistance

The first obstacle—lack of seedlings and equipment—was the easiest to overcome. We supply every farmer with all the seedlings and equipment that he or she will need to reforest their land. Some of the seedlings are sourced from the genetic bank of pure Ancient Nacional cacao, spearheaded by To’ak and implemented by TMA. MOCCA also provided key funding for creating and maintaining a local nursery and clonal garden of high-quality cacao trees. TMA also supply farmers with fencing, access to mechanical weed-whackers (a massive boon to labor efficiency), and organic fertilizer.

Overcoming the second obstacle—water access—was critical. A reforestation project is worthless if the trees don’t survive the dry season. In most parts of the tropics, where the year is divided into wet and dry seasons, some level of irrigation is usually necessary for agriculture to be productive. So we built irrigation systems for every single farmer, each of whom helped with the installation and shared 50% of the costs.

The third and fourth obstacles—market access and opportunity cost—are the most difficult to overcome. This is where most well-intentioned NGOs, government institutions, and chocolate companies fail in their effort to promote sustainable cacao farming.

a cacao seedling germinating in a nursery

“Show Me the Money!”

As many cacao farmers will readily admit, planting cacao trees is the easy part. The hard part is finding a buyer willing to pay fair prices. This is where To’ak’s role becomes indispensable.

Standard farmgate prices for wet cacao are punishingly low throughout the tropics, including in Ecuador—where prices usually hover in the range of $0.20 to $0.30 per pound for wet cacao. At those prices, the rate of return for most farmers—on both investment and effort—is negative.

Most farmers are rational economic actors. If there is no economic benefit to planting trees—be it cacao or any other species—why do it? For beauty and the good of nature? For anyone who is struggling to feed their family, those lofty reasons usually aren’t enough. The rational economic response to this conundrum is best captured by that famous line from the movie Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money!”

To’ak has long taken pride in paying cacao farmers the highest prices in the industry—ranging from $0.80 to $2.00 per pound, depending on the Cru. This is 200% to 800% above the standard farmgate price. Check out To’ak’s Transparency Report for more details.

This same pay scale was offered to farmers in TMA’s regenerative agroforestry program, and it immediately captured the interest of nearly every farmer in the area. But here’s the catch: these prices are only paid to farmers who plant cacao trees in combination with a specific and diverse array of other trees. 

The price premium is explicitly structured as an incentive to restore forest on degraded land. Monocultures don’t count!

Winning the Battle of Opportunity Costs

Another classic pitfall in many regenerative agroforestry projects is the failure to account for opportunity costs. It’s not enough for agroforestry to generate a positive return for farmers. The revenue stream from agroforestry needs to exceed the revenue stream from whichever activity the farmer is currently performing on his or her land. Otherwise, “business as usual” will likely continue.

In this part of Ecuador, the two most common land uses are cattle ranching and slash-and-burn corn cultivation—both of which are also the two primary drivers of deforestation. We calculated the net revenue stream for both of these “business as usual” activities and then compared this to the revenue stream for regenerative agroforestry.

As you will see, the benefit of a “direct trade” relationship with a premium cacao buyer like To’ak is a critical piece of the economic puzzle.

Bar graph showing a comparison of net revenue streams for "business as usual" activities versus regenerative agroforestry
A comparison of net revenue streams for “business as usual” activities versus regenerative agroforestry

As the table shows, regenerative agroforestry does ultimately win out against both cattle ranching and corn cultivation, as well as coffee cultivation. But there’s another problem: it takes four or five years before cacao trees begin generating revenue, whereas cattle and corn can generate returns in the first year.

One solution to this problem is to intercrop cacao trees with banana and plantain crops, which produce food and income within twelve months. But this still doesn’t entirely erase the short-term deficit. Considering most families in this region live month-to-month, short-term revenue takes precedence over long-term revenue.

This is where the mechanism known as “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) comes into play.

farmer poses with a cacao seedling held with both his hands. In the backdrop sits a hill and beyond that an open field

The Clincher: PES Payments

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) are financial incentives offered to landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide some sort of ecological service—for example, planting trees that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

To learn more, check out TMA’s article that explains the concept of Payments for Ecosystem Services, which we believe to be a veritable game-changer in the realm of tropical forest restoration.

In the context of this specific PES project, TMA pays farmers $4,500 per hectare over five years to convert their own deforested land into a regenerative forest that features shade-grown cacao trees. This payment immediately increases farmers’ earnings by 44% relative to slash-and-burn corn cultivation and over 300% relative to cattle ranching. This is enough to convince farmers to shift their activities away from degenerative agriculture and toward regenerative agroforestry.

In addition to the $4,500 in direct payments to farmers, an additional $2,900 is invested in each hectare, including all equipment and seedlings, site visits, technical assistance, and monitoring. The total investment is $7,400/hectare ($3,000/acre). 

bar chart showing a comparison of annual earnings per hectare for farmers at To'ak farmgate prices versus standard farmgate prices with and without PES income
A comparison of annual earnings per hectare for farmers at To’ak farmgate prices versus standard farmgate prices with and without PES income

This payment is not a subsidy or a welfare payment. It’s a payment in exchange for the service of removing carbon from the atmosphere and preserving biodiversity in a global conservation hotspot.

It also bears mentioning that the PES payments only last for five years. It is a short-term measure designed to bridge the gap until farmers begin to generate an independent revenue stream through the sale of cacao, banana, and other tree crops that their regenerative agroforestry parcels produce. You can learn more by checking out our other article “Why Paying Farmers for Reforestation is a Game-Changer.”

Planting Design & Ecological Impact

The species mix and planting densities for our regenerative agroforestry program are quite specific. We created this design ourselves, informed by fifteen years of agroforestry trial and error in this particular ecosystem and in these same communities.

Here’s the breakdown of trees and crops, per hectare:

  • 80 native shade trees, across 11+ species
  • 40 large fruit trees, across 5+ species
  • 600+ cacao trees, using 12 different cultivars (including 100% pure Ancient Nacional cacao)
  • 300+ banana and plantain plants

This means that each hectare contains a minimum of 720 trees across at least 17 different species, in addition to a healthy dose of the region’s most important staples: banana and plantain. We estimate that each hectare planted according to this design, on land that was previously deforested, removes 191 tons of CO2 over the 30-year project life, net.

cacao farmer, Veronica, sits surrounded by numerous large cacao seedlings

Human & Economic Impact

The first round of farmers started planting in January of 2021 and the second round put their seedlings into the ground in January of 2022. This is still a relatively small-scale project. We hope to keep scaling it up. Thus far, here’s the impact:

  • 77 acres (31 hectares) of land is being restored to forest
  • 37 families are participating
  • 16,320 trees have been planted across 20 species
  • On average, this project boosts overall family income by 50%

The Future

Once these cacao trees reach maturity, starting in 2024-2025, the farmers currently enrolled in this program will likely produce about 40 tons of wet cacao per year. This equates to roughly 13 metric tons of high-quality dark chocolate each year. In the process, it helps restore the forest in one of the most deforested ecosystems in South America.

Click here to watch a video about Reverse Deforestation with Regenerative Agroforestry.

Read more from To’ak.

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How Cuna de Piedra is Changing the Perception of Mexican Chocolate in the United States

Guest Blog Feature by: The Chocolate Professor and writer, Pamela Vachon.

At a recent seminar sponsored by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, one of Cuna de Piedra’s founders, Enrique Pérez, described the brand’s somewhat inauspicious product launch at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in November 2019. The brand had just been conceived of in March of that same year, and the team behind Cuna de Piedra had only received the wrappers for their bean-to-bar chocolates the night before the event. Pérez was already unsure that the brand’s value would resonate with U.S. consumers, consisting mainly of single origin, 2-ingredient, Mexican dark chocolate: “we don’t have creamy chocolate; we don’t have chocolate and hazelnut, etc.” he says.

When the team initially found that not a lot of people at the festival seemed interested in trying their samples, they thought their fears might be confirmed, if it weren’t for one lady who expressed a lot of enthusiasm for what they were doing and wanted to taste. Pérez describes her reaction: “‘You know what? This is incredible and I love it,’ she said, “but I cannot taste the Tabasco…’”

“People weren’t trying our samples,” Pérez explains, “because they saw the word Tabasco and thought, ‘hot sauce.’’ Five of seven of Cuna de Piedra’s chocolate bars (at the time) had the word Tabasco on them, as the cacao beans are sourced from the Mexican state of Tabasco. “After that we started saying out loud every 5 minutes, ‘this is cacao from Tabasco, not with Tabasco,’” and eventually a crowd gathered.

While it might have seemed inauspicious at the time, it is actually a fitting launch for Cuna de Piedra, as it highlights precisely the challenge that the brand was built to overcome: a misperception of what it means to be hecho en México.

CHOCOLATE WITH A MISSION FOR MEXICO

“We wanted to create something that was an homage to our land, to our people, to our biodiversity, and to Mexican cacao,” Pérez says. His particular lens was that of a food consultant, who had years of experience working with brands and producers on matters of innovation, quality, and safety. One thing that struck him as a matter in need of serious rebranding was the idea, both inside and outside of Mexico, that Mexican-made products were not naturally of high quality.

He cited a 2016 study conducted by public brand strategy firm Vianovo on the “Perception of Mexico’s Brand in the U.S.,” that found that not only did U.S. consumers not have a high degree of confidence in Mexican products but that its overall perception of Mexico was one rooted in crime and corruption. Perez, who partnered with designer and brand strategy developer Vicky González, wanted to make a difference, even if on a small scale, and create something that Mexicans could be proud of.

“We wanted to create a remarkable product that was not only delicious, but that also had an outstanding design,” says Pérez. “Even in Mexico, people place a higher value in products that come from outside the country, because they are considered to be of a higher quality and more worth spending money on.”

Along with González, they recruited Jorge Llanderal, a former tech worker turned chocolatier, whose family business Chocosolutions provides chocolate supplies and equipment to restaurants, who would help produce the first, Mexican-made, bean-to-bar chocolates for Cuna de Piedra.

MEXICAN CACAO

Part of Pérez and González’s original mission was also to create a brand that had “human sense,” that raised the quality of life for everyone involved in the making of their chocolate, beginning with the cacao farmers themselves. Doing so meant removing the distribution piece that exists between the cacao farmers and the chocolatiers, partnering directly with growers, and paying them above market price for their cacao beans.

“There’s a tremendous amount of history and culture related to cacao,” says Pérez. “So we envisioned a brand to make 100% Mexican chocolate with Mexican cacao.” This also meant going to the source: a small region called Soconusco in the state of Chiapas, believed to be the birthplace of cacao in Mexico, from which the practice of making chocolate spread. In addition to a Cooperativa Rayan in Soconusco, Cuna de Piedra sources cacao from several growers and cooperatives from numerous Mexican states including Tabasco and Oaxaca

A STORY OF MEXICO

In addition to its collection of various Mexican dark chocolate bars, the Cuna de Piedra team also wanted to bring light to other important aspects of Mexico’s culture and gastronomy, especially heirloom crops. Read more by clicking here.>>

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Celebrating Women in Cacao

Guest Blog Post, Shared Via Uncommon Cacao

International Women’s Day has come and gone, but we don’t just celebrate women one day a year. We continually recognize them as essential in the cocoa value chain and chocolate industry.

Women play a critical role in small-scale farming, whether they are formally recognized as doing so or not. According to Oxfam, approximately 80% of the world’s food is produced by small-scale farming, with women comprising an average of 43% of this agricultural labor. Yet women often face multiple challenges and barriers, including less access to land and capital, and juggling food production with the extensive unpaid work they do caring for their homes and families. If you’re looking to support women producers in the cacao value chain, here are some of the organizations that are working hardest on ensuring inclusivity, market access, and leadership opportunities for the women producers in their networks.

  • Semuliki Forest, Uganda: 51% of the producer network are women, and there are many women in leadership positions across the company operations
  • PISA, Haiti: 43% of the producer network are women, and it is a women-led organization (Aline Etlicher, general manager, and Fenise Pierre Antoine, cocoa post-harvest manager)
  • ABOCFA, Ghana: 27% of the producer network are women, and 2 women (Sarah Larweh and Janet Aframea pictured above) sit on the ABOCFA executive board
  • Lachuá, Guatemala: 25% of the producer network are women, and 6 women sit on the leadership boards of the Lachuá associations
  • Tumaco, Colombia: 26% of the producer network are women

I’d like to try some of these cacaos!

Please meet Shirat Nansubuga (first, above), Accounts Assistant at Latitude Craft Chocolate, our partner in Uganda who provides us with the delicious Semuliki Forest beans! When asked what she likes most about working with cacao, Shirat shared this: “It’s interesting to see the whole process – from sourcing cacao directly from farmers at our dedicated collection points, to the fermentation process in our production facility, and reaching the final export stage. Working with a company like Latitude that gives back, helping these communities by buying fresh cacao directly from them and giving the best rate, makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger which is a great feeling.”

In the second photo above, we have Fenise, the fermentation and drying manager (on right), and Aline, general manager (on left). Fenise and Aline have worked together since PISA’s first harvest in March 2014. These women are making their mark and leaving a strong legacy in Haiti’s cacao production.⁠

These ladies are leading the charge in cacao production in the Tumaco region of Colombia. The first photo is of Doña Blanca Vivera. She is part of the Cortepaz association in Tumaco and has been a cacao producer her entire life. Her love for cacao doesn’t stop there! She also makes chocolate in her home and says that cacao is her favorite tree and fruit. Second is a photo of Maria Josefa. She is in charge of purchasing management, fermentation management, drying oversight and lot tracking at the Cortepaz association.

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Cacao Expeditions With Unparalleled Flavors

Guest Blog By: Dale Erwin, Conexion Chocolate

 Last week, our team visited Esmeraldas. Raul invited us to his finca. He’s the former president of the UOPROCAE cacao Co-operative. His farm is about 4 hectares of jungle, reached by a bumpy road lined with emerald cow pastures and glassy ponds. I sat in the back of the truck with Jenny, watching snowy egrets, bright yellow birds with names unknown to me, and kingfishers take to the air as we rumbled down the track. 

     A small gaggle of cattle caused a minor traffic jam, but soon enough we reached the finca

     Raul walked us through a diverse jungle of banana trees, mamey, laurel (not the european one), mango, avocado, breadfruit, guava, mandarin, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and others whose names I’ve already lost, and, of course, cacao. 

     Taking his machete in hand, he sliced a cacao pod neatly off the tree and carefully cut it open to reveal the pulp that covered about fifty seeds within. Over and over, he repeated the process, pointing out different trees and naming the varieties – Trinitrario, Forastero, and Criollo. They all represented, though always with Nacional lineage.

     He drew our attention to subtle differences in flavor between the yellow Nacional Forastero and the red Trinitario. I stumbled along after him, I wondered:

     What did he use to maintain the soil so healthy? To which he replied – cacao pods, leaf fall, and home-made organic fertilizer.

     Which trees grow well next to cacao? He kindly smiled and said – The small tropical tree of guava fixes nitrogen, while banana trees provide shade, and citrus trees share nutrients inside the underground.

     As we walked around the finca, some of his neighbors and family were harvesting avocados together. Raul shared that the community tends to get together on a neighbor’s farm to do a minga (shared work project). The host, after the group has finished a large task, like harvesting bananas or building a chicken coop or digging an irrigation/drainage canal, provides food and beverages for the assembled workers. Part of a far-reaching reciprocal understanding of communal life is that the next month the host of that project will help out on someone else’s farm.

     After we had walked to the far edge of his land, abutted to a national forest preserve, we heard the gradual crescendo of the downpour breaking above. The foliage was so thick it took a while to register, but Raul and Luis hacked off banana leaves with nonchalance and distributed them as umbrellas. 

     The chickens that had been roaming in our wake dashed back to their coop, to which we followed in single-file. 

     The care and attention that Raul and all of UOPROCAE’s farmers bring to bear on their farms – the biodiversity and community coherence – are the vital genesis of our process. We believe that, through our diligent and passionate transformation of cacao into Conexión Chocolate, our bars, couverture, derivatives and snacks can give flavorful expression to our producers’ labor of love.

Learn more about Conexion Chocolate on their website!

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How The Heirloom Cocoa Preservation Fund Is Making Chocolate as Good as It Tastes

Guest Blog Feature by: The Chocolate Professor and writer, Kathleen Willcox

The power and privilege that comes with knowledge is often a double-edged sword. Take chocolate. A seemingly innocent pleasure, a flavorful experience that can transport you, deliver joy, with just a bite. Until you realize that a lot of chocolate is created by people destroying the environment and using slave labor, and then that innocent pleasure becomes anything but.

Deforestation is endemic in regions that cultivate cocoa trees; forests are razed to plant cocoa farms. And production continues to grow—between 2000 and 2014, global production increased 32%, but the land-use footprint increased 37%; about 1% of forest loss between 1988 and 2008 has been attributed to cocoa production.  In 2017, 24 leading chocolate producers pledged to commit to stop deforestation, but only a few companies—including Hershey’s—have taken steps to do so. Callebaut claims it will be deforestation-free in 2025.

Two decades ago, major chocolate manufacturers promised to eradicate immoral labor practices. But according to a recent report from the U.S. Labor Department, more than 1.56 million children are engaged in hazardous work on cocoa farms in the Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana alone, countries that produce 60% of the world’s cocoa supply annually. And despite their statements, Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé have publicly admitted that they simply could not guarantee that their chocolate chain was free from environmental abuse or child labor. (Each company could trace less than half of their cocoa; the vast majority was virtually untraceable).

While larger cocoa companies seem unable—or a cynic might say, unwilling—to document their chain of production, the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) has made it its mission to do just that. The HCP is focused on protecting communities in which cocoa is grown, and the children and adults who live there from abusive labor practices. How? By systematically tracing chocolate through its genetic code.

INTERVIEW WITH ANNE ZACZEK OF HCP

We sat down with Anne Zaczek, executive director at the HCP, to learn more about the challenges facing the industry, and chocolate lovers who want to support ethically sourced chocolate. Read on for a deep dive into the building of the HCP, its evolution, progress, and future.

Harvesting Heirloom Cacao photo courtesy of HCP

The HCP was launched in 2012 in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. What inspired its launch, and where does the funding come from?

The idea came from a conversation that Dan Pearson, HCP Founding Member and Pam Williams, HCP Past-President and Founding Member had with Lyndel Meinhardt, USDA-ARS in the middle of an FCIA meeting in 2010. Lyndel mentioned that the USDA-ARS had the ability to determine the DNA of any cacao tree and was using that for breeding program purposes focused on pod yield and disease resistance. Those programs, however, had never really considered the DNA of cacao, as it relates to the bean’s flavor. The idea of matching DNA to flavor was believed to have many positive implications for fine flavor cacao farmers in differentiating and preserving the biodiversity of their beans.  The concept from there grew into what is the HCP today. 

Initial funding for the HCP came from our Founding Circle members, a list can be found on the Donate page of our website. We are a registered 501c3 non-profit organization and are funded mainly by donations and a few grant programs that support our research and preservation efforts.

How has it evolved in a decade?

2022 is our 10-year anniversary of the HCP.  It has evolved from a mere concept to a registered organization with a board made up of leading fine chocolate industry members from across all sectors of the industry.

We started with identifying Heirloom designees, first named in 2014.  Today we have identified 16 designees located around the world.  In 2017 we started our first nursery programs to support our designees with their preservation efforts.  In 2020 the HCP board voted to add “discover” to our mission, to not only identify and preserve heirloom cacao varieties, but actively engage in the locating and cataloging of unique, vital, unrecognized fine flavor cacao varieties that are under the threat of extinction.

Looking ahead, in 2022 we will be releasing a Review of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements, which is a report the first of its kind. It is a comprehensive report that compiles all previous literature of historical and contemporary movements, and expeditions of cacao research to identify gaps in previous discovery efforts. Based on this report, we will conduct expeditions to locations where cacao is believed to have originated to discover rare cacao genetic clusters, and flavor profiles that have not been recorded and are under threat of vanishing forever. 

 

How does the sourcing via genetic code work exactly?

In the early years of HCP, the genetics had to be retrieved from the leaf of the plant.  In recent years, USDA-ARS has access to technology where the genetics can be sourced directly from the shell of the beans submitted during the HCP submission process. When beans are submitted to the HCP for organoleptic analysis by our internationally acclaimed tasting panel, beans are also sent to USDA-ARS to conduct the genetic analysis. 

 

What is the USDA’s role? 

The idea for the HCP emerged in 2010 when Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) representatives met with the USDA-ARS, which thought its lab could help the FCIA identify fine flavor cacao using the samples in the existing worldwide database. There was a shared concern that cacao preservation programs were focused on yield and disease resistance, not taking the importance of flavor into account. This led to instant action: in December 2011, the FCIA established a specific cooperative agreement with the USDA-ARS. Today, the USDA-ARS plays a key role in profiling the genetic flavor components of the bean samples we receive.

 

Has the problem of cacao sustainability gotten slightly better or worse in recent years? 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people turned to chocolate as a means to cope, and have something comforting in troubling times. This resulted in a surge in consumerism, and not necessarily by informed consumers. The other side of this, is that some consumers did have more time to pay more attention to what exactly they are consuming. They had time to answer questions like, “What does FairTrade actually mean,” and “What is a true bean to bar?”

The sustainability of cacao is always in question, and thus the efforts to adhere to the mission of the HCP are ever important.

 

What are your biggest concerns and why in terms of creating this source line?

A big contributing factor to growth in sustainability aside from consumer education is consumer action. One of our biggest concerns is climate change. As temperatures rise in sub-tropical climates, the cacao no longer has a natural habitat where it can grow, thus leaving farmers who live by what we refer to as sustainability without crops. The livelihood of our farmers and their communities is a critical part of what we seek to protect. Being that cacao is amongst the top ten commodities in the world, we must ensure a secure environment for those who grow it.

How many farmers do you partner with, where are they located — and how many acres / trees are there? Any plans to onboard other farmers?

All of our Heirloom Farmers (i.e. Heirloom designees) have gone through our Submission process in order to become designated.  We currently have 16 Heirloom Designees from around the world.  Any interested cacao farmer from around the world can submit an application and bean sample to the HCP.   It is a rolling submission, and there is no cost to submission. 

The samples are received by the HCP lab at Guittard where we anonymously and uniformly process the samples into chocolate and liquor and send these samples out to a tasting panel for analysis. 

Our tasting panel is a 9-member internationally acclaimed tasting panel, they conduct their analysis and determine if the submission is deemed Heirloom or not.  Our submission process is based solely on the flavor analysis, however, before the designation is awarded a genetic analysis and site visit must be completed to confirm the designation.

 More and more consumers of everything want to know where their chicken, kale, clothes come from. For one ingredient wonders, it’s easier. But for items like chocolate, it’s quite difficult. What are, simply put, the challenges of truly understanding where a bar of chocolate comes from?

There is a lot of greenwashing out there.  It is important for the consumer to weed through it and do some of their own research, pay attention to where the beans are being sourced from, again, does the packaging list the specific farm the beans are coming from? 

On each of the Heirloom Designees profiles on our website, we have listed the chocolatiers, makers and retailers that sell chocolate made from their Heirloom designated beans.  For example: the farmers of Chuno variety in San Jose de Bocay, Nicaragua are the HCPs 12th designation (HCP #12) – On our website, you can find a list of the farmers of those beans, and a list of retailers that sell bars made from their heirloom designated cacao.

 

From what you can see, how much of the chocolate market is currently traceable or being traced?

This data will vary by companies. If there is direct trade, it’s noted that up to 95% of the cacao is traceable. The sale and traceability of cacao is also broken down into tiers. A lower tier buyer or cacao farm could have as little as 24% traceability.

 

What should consumers know? What labels should they look for to know a chocolate is safe? 

With chocolate, (much like wine) flavor not only comes from the beans and genetics themselves, but from the terroir, fermentation and roasting practices.  All regions have exquisite unique flavors ready to be discovered and enjoyed, it is important to pay attention to the origin noted on the packaging (does it state the farm the beans were sourced from?) And, it is important to look at the ingredients.  We have set up a page on our site Buy Heirloom Chocolate where we have listed and mapped all chocolatiers, chocolate makers and retailers that sell chocolate made from Heirloom designated beans.

WHAT DO FARMERS THINK?

The HCP works with a network of farmers, so we reached out for testimonials on the partnership and progress. Here’s what they said about the HCP Nursery Projects:

“It is evident that this project will create an opportunity for smallholder farmers to increase farm plots by using the seedlings from the HCP and establish the longevity, effectiveness and sustainability of this imitative.” – Maya Mountain Cacao, HCP #7

“The young trees and the data we collect in the years to come will be important in terms of propagating valuable cacao. But, there is an intangible benefit to our association with the HCP – the network of relationships that have been developed.” – Secret, Finca Terciapelo, HCP #6

“Working with HCP has meant a contribution to the preservation and recognition of fine flavor Nacional cacao. We are learning about the genetics of our cacao and generating a technical selection process with HCP, which will protect our special trees for future generations. It is in the interest of the Asociación Nueva Esperanza to continue working with HCP to protect our cocoa and improve its productivity in an ecologically healthy environment, for the benefit of our families and focus on the production of high-quality raw materials or chocolates.”

Yamile Roldán, ASOANE President and Francisco Monserrate, ASOANE Vice President – HCP #6

The HCP “Establishes credibility for farms that grow heirloom cacao, and also generates publicity and awareness for heirloom cacao in general.” Jerry , To’ak Chocolate, HCP #9

ETHICAL CHOCOLATE BUYING GUIDE

Chocolate can be produced ethically. There are chocolates whose ethics match the vertiginous high of the flavor-packed experience it delivers, made from chocolate sourced from the cocoa farmers in the HCP network. To find them, head to the HCP site to find US retailers and international retailers, then you’ll need to find the specific chocolate made with HCP chocolate on their site.

Another way to indulge in ethical chocolate and support HCP? Adopt a cacao tree and receive information about the farm and chocolate bars too.

Akesson’s Single Plantation Chocolate: Smooth, earthy, with notes of red and blue berries, tobacco and light baking spices.

 Boho’s Milk Chocolate and Potato Chips

A richly aromatic milk chocolate, with notes of vanilla, cream, caramel, complimenting the salty, savory crunch of the chips.

 Cultura Craft Chocolate’s Chocolate Bar Belize: There’s a lot going on in this pure dark (75%) chocolate bar: plums, black cherries, tobacco, vanilla.

Categories
General News

East Meets West

By: Ren Min Koh

Would you be surprised if I told you that in many Asian countries, it’s common for the woman to give gifts to someone she loves on Valentine’s Day (February 14th) and one month later, the man is supposed to return a gift to her on White Valentine’s Day (March 14th)? This phenomenon  originated in Japan, and has since spread to many other Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan. There are specific chocolates for men to purchase,  which will convey the nature of the giver-recipient relationship. 

Giri chocolates, also known as Obligatory chocolates, are typically presented in a square box and are given as a courtesy gift to acquaintances, friends, and colleagues. While Honmei chocolate, known as true love chocolate, comes in heart-shaped boxes, and is only given to romantic interests.

AndSons Chocolatiers, Colorful Love Box

Let’s spread love in the month of Love. This colorful love box by And Sons Chocolatiers is the perfect gift to acquaintances, friends, and colleagues. These bonbons look so delicious I wouldn’t mind receiving them as a return gift.

Chocolate Enthusiast: Beauty Bar Chocolate

What is Valentine’s Day without roses? This Beauty Bar Chocolate by The Chocolate Enthusiast is a great gift to show the receiver that you care for her as the ingredients used in this bar are carefully chosen to support heart health and emotional well-being.

So, which chocolates are you going to get?

If you would like to learn more about chocolate, its origins and a group of amazing chocolatiers, be sure to check out our website here at MakeMineFine.com. Also, learn more at finechocolateindustry.org.  

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) is the only organization focused 100% on supporting fine chocolate professionals. We promote the artistry and craftsmanship of the chocolate professional, focused on producing superior products made from premium chocolate and natural ingredients. We believe in using best practices in cacao processing and chocolate production; as well as transparent labeling and marketing practices.