On Monday (May 7th) of this week I was in Hastings at a celebration called ‘Jack in the Green’. A large leaf-covered man paraded through the streets, accompanied by hundreds of dancers and drummers dressed in leafy green garb, or as giants, foxes, deer and badgers. Our house, which was on the procession route, was decked in ivy and other leaves, as were most of the houses on the street. Everything was garlanded with ribbons, mostly yellow, green and white, echoing the colours of early leaf and blossom. On Sunday the local 14th C Church, much to the disgust of some of its more sanctimonious members, had even allowed the dancers into its sacred precinct, where they played and sang and danced. This ancient celebration is rooted in the old pagan festival of Beltane and acknowledges the idea that there is a ‘green spirit’ which was long ago anthropomorphised into the “Green Man.” There is a stone carving of the Green Man’s leaf-clad face carved into the stonework of the Church, reflecting a time when the Church was more accomodating of what are still seen by purists as heretical views. Jack in the Green has survived tenaciously and now the celebration grows in numbers every year and seems doomed to become a tourist attraction.
When we look at cacao, we see a tree that embodies the spirit of the forest and acts as a link between the canopy, the middle storey and the ground level. Cacao plays an important role in the rain forest where it grows, a role which extends into its products, which are pivotal to human trade and society and which have led to its propagation around the world wherever growing conditions are suitable. As an unreconstructed Lamarckian, even a Lysenkoite, I intuitively believe that an organism can consciously evolve and that the discoveries of Crick and Watson and the Human Genome Project actually confirm the Lamarckian idea that acquired characteristics can be transmitted to future generations. This contradicts the Darwinian thesis that evolution is just a series of mass extinctions punctuated by lucky genetic accidents.
I am intrigued by the conspiracy theory that humans are not the masters of the planet, but merely the mandarins or administrative class who run things for the cows, who reward us with their highly addictive milk and meat. In exchange for their products, we manage the surface of the planet to accommodate their needs, clearing forests and creating artificial pastureland in areas where forest would otherwise prevail. While cattle exist in smaller numbers than humans, their combined weight exceeds that of all humanity and the land area they occupy is greater than for any other land life form. Certainly the close cohabitation with cattle that prevailed until recently in the southern Jutland peninsula, home of the Holstein and Friesian breeds, as well as the myth of Europa, reflects an earlier belief in the mystic power of these life-giving and life-saving, beasts. If there is a candidate for a vegetable counterpart to the cow, I submit that it must be cacao. Its character, its cultivation and its natural history suggest that it is worthy of the deification that it received from the Maya and other Central American civilisations.
Every plant, as it follows and reveals the universal principles that animate all living systems, can tell us much about ourselves.
Nicholas Culpeper, the pioneering 17th Century English herbalist, wrote in his introduction to The Complete Herbal:
“God has stamped his image on every creature, and therefore the abuse of the creature is a great sin; but how much more do the wisdom and excellency of God appear, if we consider the harmony of the Creation in the virtue and operation of every Herb? ”
So, what is it about cacao that makes it such a special food?
Theobroma Cacao grows wild in Central America in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize. Cacao is a unique tree with a unique way of capturing nutrients, protecting itself and reproducing in a harsh environment and rearing its offspring in a caring and nurturing way. In the process it produces substances that have a profound attraction to humans.
In the wild the cacao tree grows to a height of 10-20 metres, which for other trees in the rain forest would mean an inability to survive. Typically, the mahogany tree, which occupies the canopy of the forest, drops its crop of seeds to earth where they will germinate and grow to a few centimetres fed by the nutrients in the seed and then enter a sort of stasis. It takes an event such as a hurricane or logging or the collapse of an aged or diseased tree to allow in enough sunlight for the mahogany to seize its chance and make a bid for the top.
To flourish in the middle storey of the rain forest requires a very different strategy. The cacao tree still needs some sunlight, it just gets by with a lot less than most plants need to survive, by exhibiting a frugality and intelligence of function that enables it to live and reproduce in extremely deprived conditions. It tends to do best on hillsides, where glancing light increases the otherwise sparse availability of sunshine. Hence its success in the Maya Mountains, where south-facing mountain slopes allow light to cut through the canopy at an angle. In the wild it is often found in stands, where it has managed to colonise an area. The cacao tree flowers on its main trunk and leading branches. The flowers are pollinated by midges which breed on the rotting debris of the forest floor. The pollinated flower forms a pod which grows on a callus-like pad directly off the trunk or branch. The pod is as hard as wood. Each pod contains 30 or so seeds surrounded by a sweet juicy milky pulp. As the pod ripens the seeds begin to germinate, still in the pod. When the shoots and roots are a few millimetres long the pod falls to earth and rolls away from the parent tree. The pod still forms a helmet-like protective barrier over the seedlings. The clustered seeds all send down roots and send up shoots together, closely packed on the jungle floor. Eventually the shoots raise the pod up and it falls over and off, but by then the seedlings are off to a good start. If they are all successful then they gradually merge into one tree. In this respect the cacao tree has evolved in a way that is rare in nature:
1. Like a marsupial, the offspring is retained by the parent and not released into the world to fend for itself until it has developed beyond a certain point. The mother tree feeds its children until they have developed sufficiently to survive in the wild
2. Even with developed shoots and roots, the plantlets still stick closely together and sacrifice their individuality in the interests of common survival in a hostile environment.
In domesticating cacao the Maya made few changes to the wild tree. As the matriarchal horticulturalists who created many of the world’s most commercially important and sensual plants including maize, amaranth, pumpkins, kidney beans, papaya, guava, chilli peppers, vanilla, tobacco and dahlias, it is perhaps not surprising that they could effect precise changes in developing the ‘criollo’ cacao tree. (‘criollo’ means ‘native’ in Spanish). The criollo tree differs from the wild cacao in three main ways:
1 The pod is softer and easier to open with a stone or a knife
2 The tree grows to a limited height, reduced from 10-20 metres to 3-5 metres, making pruning and harvesting easier.
3 The seeds, which are creamy coloured in wild cacao, are purple in colour in the criollo variety. This reflects a greatly increased content of alkaloids and other compounds.
It was women who domesticated cacao and created maize. With sacraments including morning glory seeds, they developed a deep rapport and understanding with plants, persuading them to evolve in ways that are beyond the ability of modern plant breeders and molecular biologists to comprehend.
The Maya cultivated cacao in forest gardens in which every tree had a function. As a result, the trees that provided shade for the cacao also provided thatching and building material, fodder, oilseeds, wood, medicines, fruit and allspice. Careful management of the shade ensures that the cultivated cacao doesn’t grow too quickly and thrives in a healthy and controlled environment that closely replicates the natural wild environment of the cacao tree.
(An example of how successfully the Maya domesticated the cacao without depriving it of its intrinsic ability to live sustainably in the wild happened two years ago. One of the members of the cooperative of Maya Indians who supply us with cacao led an archaeological expedition to ruins in a remote region of Belize that has not been inhabited since the collapse of the Maya civilisation in the 9th Century. In the surrounding forest he found a stand of several hundred domesticated cacao trees that have reproduced without human support on that spot for over a millennium).
Nowadays cacao plantations are laid out on three basic patterns.
1. The oldest are in Belize and were planted on the ‘whole pod’ basis The farmer would simply prepare a space in the forest and then plant a germinating mature pod. Once the tree had emerged he would allow all the branches to grow and then, as some revealed themselves as more productive than others, would prune selectively to maximise yield. Yields are about 400 Kgs per hectare, combined with other forest products.
2. The typical plantation-based mode of most of the last century was to plant the cacao in rows that were 5 metres apart, growing the trees from seed. This leaves sufficient space between the trees to allow for tall shade trees, which are then managed to provide the appropriate level of light. Yields are about 500 Kgs per hectare, but considerable other economic benefits accrue, particularly to those farmers who also plant mahogany and red cedar as shade trees. Over a 25 year period the income from wood can greatly exceed that from cacao and increase with each further year. Unfortunately, because of forest protection laws and land tenure uncertainties in many areas, smallholders often do not plant high value trees in case they are confiscated by the national government.
3. The most modern and intensive method represents the system imposed by American, British, Dutch, German and Swiss ‘aid’ organisations in the 1980s. This massive aid programme successfully created global overcapacity in cacao and was in response to the upswing in cacao prices caused by the President of the Ivory Coast’s decision to hold back supplies from the market in 1982. The trees are closely planted at 2.5 metres apart. The only shade comes from small and economically valueless shrubs and also from the top part of the cacao tree itself. Fertility comes from regular applications of nitrogen fertiliser. Yields are around 800Kgs per hectare, double the least intensive system. But, there is no other income from the land used. Disease is rampant and requires constant control. The fungal diseases Witches’ broom and black pod, are common and devastating and becoming more virulent. This method represents a step too far in intensification. There are large areas of Brazil where cocoa production has collapsed completely due to ineradicable disease that has wiped out the entire base of cacao trees.
A conference was held in Costa Rica1998 at which the leading chocolate companies met to seek solutions to the crash in cacao production. The conference concluded that a return to less intensive practices was the key to sustainable production. However, the legacy of the 1980s aid programme will haunt the industry for decades.
In the first two systems, fertility is almost entirely ‘passive’ and this has attracted criticism from organic certification organisations which are wedded to the idea that good organic agriculture requires the production and use of animal manure and vegetable composts to encourage growth.
However, excessive growth, due to fertiliser and sunshine, leads inexorably to fungal disease in the cacao tree.
In a well managed plantation following the first two systems the fertility sources are manifold, but fertility is delivered over a longer time frame. The shade trees draw mineral nutrients from deep below the forest floor and transform them into leaves. When the leaves fall these nutrients are made available to the cacao tree, which has a shorter taproot combined with a mat-like network of surface-feeding roots. If you scrape back the leaf litter on the forest floor you immediately come upon the cacao roots, some of which are pointed upward, clinging to and eating into the decomposing leaves without waiting for them to break down into humus. Canopy-dwelling birds and mammals regularly deposit small amounts of guano and manure which splashes on the leaves of the cacao trees and then is washed down to the soil by rain. Because it is drip-fed to the cacao tree in continuous small quantities it does not encourage the soft sappy growth that is prone to fungal and insect attack.
Perhaps because it is slow-growing and accessible, the cacao tree exudes caffeic acid from its leaves. It is common among the Maya to snap off a leaf of cacao and chew it to a pulp, extracting a mildly stimulating dose of caffeine. In the beans in the pod, caffeic acid becomes the alkaloids theobromine (food of the gods)and theophylline (leaf of the gods), both methylxanthines in the same group of alkaloids as caffeine, which is a breakdown product of their consumption. The levels of theobromine in cacao are highly toxic and are targeted at birds and mammals. For a squirrel or a monkey one or two cacao beans are enough to bring on heart palpitations and a speedy retreat to the treetops, reinforcing the memory that this is a food not to be toyed with. Other predators on cacao don’t eat the cacao, but use it to farm other food products.
Woodpeckers will make a hole in the cacao pod. This is done in order to attract flying insects that lay their eggs in the sweet inner pulp surrounding the seeds. The woodpecker then returns at regular intervals to eat the larvae. Leafcutter ants march across the forest floor carrying small sail-shaped pieces cut from leaves of cacao. They do not eat them however, but take them below ground where they provide food for a fungal culture. It is the fungus that the ants then consume.
The Maya believed in a sort of coevolution with animals, plants, soil and water. Their belief was that the quest for perfection that characterises humankind cannot be achieved without the collaboration of perfected plants and animals. The frog and the jaguar, the morning glory and the cacao tree all played significant roles in this evolutionary process and were accorded a value not solely based on what they could give to humanity, but also, like household pets, loved for themselves and treated with the same care that one would give to a family member.
Cocoa beans were also used as money during this era, one of the few instances of money truly growing on trees. The Maya trading economy used cacao as capital, in much the same way as cattle were used in Europe.
In Mexico, hot chocolate is never served at funerals but everyone drinks it on the Day of the Dead, when the souls return from another world, temporarily reborn to this world. There are many present-day cultural associations of cacao with fertility and regeneration. Hot chocolate is a symbol of human blood, much like wine in Christianity. In the bad old days of human sacrifice, the Aztec priests would wash the blood off the sacrificial obsidian knives with hot chocolate and give the resulting drink to calm the nerves of those awaiting sacrifice.
In the iconography of Maya archeological sites, cacao is associated with women and the Underworld, where sprouting and regeneration are portrayed in myths with echoes of Persephone and Demeter.
The cacao tree figures prominently in Maya creation myths, being considered one of the components out of which humanity were created. Dedicated deities embody the spirit of the cacao tree and it features in the Popol Vuh as well as in the 4 day long Deer Dance. I witnessed the cutting of a tree which was to be used in the Deer Dance during the Harmonic Convergence in August 1987. It took nearly an hour of explanation, persuasion and extracting of permission from the spirits of the forest and of the specific tree before any Maya would dare to presume to touch it with an axe.
The Maya’s 4-day long Deer Dance evokes the entire history of the Maya, with male dancers dressed as black dwarves in black masks referring to the era when the Maya had no culture and lived in caves. Other male dancers in pink masks and women’s dresses evoke the horticultural matriarchal era before ‘the Grandmothers’ created corn. The dance depicts the moment when the leader of the men gently but firmly tells the Grandmother: “Henceforth we men will grow the corn.” This was the moment when the holistic and horticultural matriarchal world succumbed to the hierarchical and agricultural world of priests, warriors and princes that led to the extraordinary flowering of Maya culture, short-lived but incredibly diverse, and then to sudden collapse as maize cultivation stretched the ecosystem beyond its limits. The Maya had abused their historic partners in coevolution.
Nowadays, smallholder cacao is increasingly shade grown, bird friendly, sustainable and organic.
By contrast, plantation-grown cacao depends on management as waged labour cannot be relied upon to show. The usual capitalist measure of productivity, return on capital employed, does not apply in cacao production, where land value bears little relation to net income, which depends heavily on chemical inputs and waged labour. It takes one foreman to oversee about 4 labourers and the reliability of foremen is hard to measure. If trees are planted at too great a spacing then management becomes correspondingly more difficult as control depends on lines of sight and voice commands. Planting trees more closely creates more problems than it solves. Low world prices and increasing input costs put downward pressure on labour costs. This leads to increasing dependence on slave labour. This occurs in the Ivory Coast of non-Ivorian Africans, in Malaysia of tribal people. Many of these are women, who are short enough to get under the trees with backpack sprayers and then fog the tree with fungicides.
Smallholder grown cacao offers the following advantages:
1 Trees enjoy considerable longevity, exceeding 100 years
2 A forest canopy performs the functions of chemicals and low waged labour in providing nutrients and preventing disease, thereby increasing carbon sequestration and biodiversity
3 Slavery is avoided
4 Sustainability is achieved as diseased trees are rare and fossil fuel inputs are not required
5 Individual freedom and enterprise, the foundation of stable democratic societies, is encouraged among smallholder farmers.
There is one cloud on the horizon for cacao. Genetic engineering of rape seed is being developed which will produce oils with the same characteristics as cocoa butter. If successful, this will lead to the reduction of the cacao tree population of the planet, with consequent loss of forest canopy and forest biodiversity that is inherent to successful cacao cultivation. A tonne of cacao costing $1000 yields approximately 1/2 tonne of cocoa powder worth $300 and 1/2 tonne of cocoa butter worth $2000. If cocoa butter is genetically engineered in rapeseed the overall value of cocoa beans will be greatly diminished. This will lead to a considerable reduction in land area devoted to cacao production, regrettably at a time when mainstream thinking is moving back to the forest-based and more extensive systems that preceded the ultra-intensification of the 1980s. More cacao and more cocoa butter, if grown on a sustainable smallholder basis, means sustainable agroforestry, with all the consequent gains in CO2 sequestration, soil protection, biodiversity and economic and political stability.
More rapeseed means more soil erosion, more biodiversity loss, more concentration of power, more CO2 creation, more poverty, more subsidies and more asthma.
What is it about chocolate that makes it addictive? Is it good for you?.. What are the chemical constituents of cacao that make it so appealing? How come the cacao tree hits so many of our deepest needs right on the button? Here we come back to my cow analogy – are cacao’s properties part of a pact with humans to ensure the plant’s survival? A plant that is clever enough to survive in the middle storey can make itself indispensable to potential protectors.
Cacao is rich in;
1. Polyphenols – these are the antioxidants found in red wine green tea, grapeseed and bilberry, are also present in chocolate. A single 20g bar of dark chocolate contains 400mg of polyphenols, the minimum daily requirement.
2. Anandamine – this substance locks onto the cannabinoid receptors, creating mild euphoria.
3. Phenethylamine – this is the substance that is found in elevated levels in the brains of people who are ‘in love.’ The association of chocolate with Valentine’s Day and romance has sound chemical foundations.
4. Methylxanthines – Cacao’s theobromine and theophylline are kinder stimulants than caffeine. They provide less coercive stimulation than coffee as they take time to break down into caffeine.
5. Magnesium – As you might expect from a plant that was developed by women, cacao is the plant world’s most concentrated source of dietary magnesium. Falling magnesium levels create the symptoms of premenstrual tension, hence the premenstrual craving many women feel for chocolate.
6. Copper – an important co-factor in preventing anaemia and in ensuring that iron makes effective haemoglobin. The Maya view of hot chocolate as blood is more than a metaphor.
7. Cocoa butter – Cocoa butter is the perfect emollient for the skin, far better than the petroleum jelly substituted for it in cheap bodycare products. It melts at precisely the human body temperature. That’s why people love the mouthfeel of chocolate. As the cocoa butter melts, it acts as a heat exchanger on the palate, cooling the tongue as it goes from a solid to a liquid state. Unlike hydrogenated fats, which are often substituted for it in cheap confectionery, cocoa butter stays liquid at normal body temperature, thereby avoiding the occlusion of arteries and distortion of lipid metabolising functions that hydrogenated fat consumption entails.
You show me a cow that can deliver such a comprehensive package of addictive, stress-reducing and health-enhancing ingredients.
In 1987 I visited a cacao grove for the first time, in Belize. I was transfixed. I was with a film crew making a film about the Deer Dance and the Crystal Skull, a Maya artefact, but something told me that cacao would be part of my future. It was one of those moments when something undefinable happened, when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. My diary of the time includes drawings of chocolate bars called ‘Maya Maya’. In 1991 a series of coincidences led me to add a chocolate business to my trading portfolio, hitherto a wholefood range that proudly proclaimed that we had never sold anything containing sugar in 24 years. Our Green & Black’s organic chocolate was successful and in 1993 I contacted the Maya cacao growers in Southern Belize. This soon led to the production of Maya Gold, the first ever controlled named origin chocolate. The marketing of Maya Gold emphasised the biodiversity contribution and the social and economic benefits of smallholder cacao. To date, just a few of these benefits have been
1. Secondary school attendance has risen from under 10% to over 90%
2 A logging permit granted to a Malaysian logging company was successfully challenged by a coalition led by the cacao growers’ association and 100,000 hectares of rain forest were spared the axe
3 The Kekchi and Mopan Maya, who communicate in English because their Maya languages diverged such a long time ago, have overcome mutual suspicion and work together in harmony in the democratically constituted growers association
4 Women’s rights and health have benefited. Although the men do the planting, pruning and harvesting, the women control the post-harvest fermentation and drying and therefore control the end product and income from it. They are less likely to spend it on beer than men, thereby ensuring it is invested in education, clothing and health.
Maya Gold is now a supermarket staple in the UK. Of course, it helps that it tastes delicious and echoes the Maya recipe for hot chocolate, which uses allspice, vanilla and choisya (Aztec Mock Orange) leaves as flavouring. In our recipe we substitute orange for choisya but think we have recaptured the essence of the Maya cacao experience.
The success of Maya Gold shows that consumers respond to a processor’s declared commitment to acknowledge and support the integrity of the cacao plant, of its forest world and of the people who tend it. They understand their place in the web of life and the leveraging impact of their purchasing decisions on issues of global concern. We are privileged to have been able to make and illustrate this connection and to profit from it, along with the Maya growers and the cacao and the forests which cacao production generates.