Monday, January 24, 2011

New Variety of Cacao

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In the New York Times, there is an interesting article about a recently re-discovered variety of Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is produced. This variety, known as Nacional, was formerly widely grown in South America prior to this century, but was mostly wiped out by disease. Today, the variety is very rare, but recently a genetically pure specimen was discovered and is now being made into chocolate.

Apparently this variety is unusual in that some of the cacao beans are white instead of their normal purple color, and yield a less bitter chocolate because they contain fewer anthocyanins, pigment molecules that have an astringent taste. Currently there is only one retailer of chocolate made from this newly discovered variety in the US, Moonstruck Chocolate.

This story makes me think about how plant breeding (and inbreeding) will affect the varieties of food plants that will be available to us in the future. Originally, Nacional cacao trees were wiped out by a disease to which all plants of that variety were susceptible. Among other reasons, one explanation for the severity of the infamous Irish potato famine was that many farmers were cultivating one variety of potato, which all had similar succeptibility to Blight, a plant disease. This famine killed nearly one million people. Some people predict that a similar fate will befall modern banana farmers, since almost all bananas grown for sale in the US are of one variety and grown from genetically identical trees.

Growing many varieties of one type of plant makes growing and harvesting the different varities more complicated and threfore more expensive, but it is a good way to maintain a diverse selection of plants and avoid your entire crop being decimated by one disease. Maybe in the future agriculture will find a balance between variety and cost efficiency. It's also possible that the days of bananas as we know them are numbered.

(Thanks to Lynn for the tip!)

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