Sunday, April 26, 2015

Visit to The Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Centre (CATIE)

We had the pleasure today of meeting with Dr Wilbert Phillips-Mora, head of the cacao improvement program at CATIE. CATIE established an international cocoa collection over 70 years ago. At present they have over 1000 varieties of cacao at the centre in Turrialba.
Dr Phillips-Mora guided us through the important work they are doing in breeding new cacao varieties in order to  improve growing stability for farmers.
Have you ever heard of frosty pod rot? I hear “rot” and get an ominous feeling.  Frosty pod rot, otherwise known as moniliasis began destroying cacao trees in Costa Rica in 1978. As an airborne fungus, it spreads easily from farm to farm and has resulted in many growers in the region abandoning cacao for more reliable crops. Moniliasis has had a devastating affect on cacao crops in many countries including: Mexico, Peru, Belize, Columbia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.  Certainly, if this disease ever reached west Africa (where most of the world’s cacao is grown) it would have catastrophic consequences for chocolate consumers worldwide.
Frosty pod rot, along with black pod (which is found worldwide) have been the main concern of cacao researchers at CATIE for the past 30 years.  Through decades  of  careful and frequent evaluation of disease resistance and yield potential CATIE have now released 6 new varieties in Central America. The hope is that farmers will gain confidence in growing this crop and cacao will flourish once again in this region.
Disease control and yield, but what about quality and flavour? I feel a sudden panic, thinking of the grocery store rows of bland fruits and vegetables, brought to us by agriculture improvement research. Is this the future of mesoamerican cacao? Will we forever only know cocoa as an ingredient in a sugary candy bar, and confine the exquisite “food of the gods” to a page in history?
Thankfully, I’m assured that quality has been an integral part of the breeding research. Dr Phillips-Mora believes in the importance of promoting the exceptional quality of Central American cacao. So, only varieties with fine flavour potential were considered. In fact, 2 of the 6 varieties selected were ranked among the 10 best varieties at the 2009 Salon du Chocolat competition in Paris.
At CATIE the research continues and better varieties will be released as time goes on. The superior quality of CATIE’s developed varieties coupled with the influence of unique terroir characteristics are hoped to provide chocolate makers with an impressive variety of cacao  and in turn improve the earning potential for producing families.

Thanks to Dr Wilbert Phillips-Mora and the cacao team at CATIE for taking the time to meet with this small chocolate maker from Canada. Muchas gracias!

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