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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.


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.


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


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.