Episode 601: The Chocolate Curse

Feb 5, 2015
Originally published on February 5, 2015 11:43 am

The world is running out of chocolate.

Cocoa is in short supply. Demand is way up, thanks to China and India developing a taste for the sweet stuff. Producing more cocoa isn't so easy. Cocoa is a fussy plant. It doesn't grow in very many places and it gets diseases really easily.

Today on the show, we learn about one man in Ecuador who came up with an answer to the global cocoa shortage. A warning here; if you're a die-hard chocolate lover, you might not like it.

Music: Alabama Shakes's "I Found You." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/ Spotify/ Tumblr.

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OK, I do not want to alarm anyone, so I am just going to say this straight out - the world is running out of chocolate.


Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is in very short supply. Demand for chocolate has gone way up. China and India have taken a liking to it.

SMITH: Uh-oh.

VANEK SMITH: And here in the U.S., we're eating a lot more dark chocolate, which uses a lot more cocoa.

SMITH: Now, normally when something like this happens, you just grow more (laughter). You just grow more cocoa. That is the way these things work. But that's really hard to do with cocoa because it is this really fragile, delicate plant. The tree cannot grow in very many places. You find it in very particular climates like West Africa and Ecuador. And once you even get the tree up and going, it doesn't produce very many cocoa pods, and it succumbs to all of these diseases that have these dire names like black pod and another one, a fungus, called witches' broom.

VANEK SMITH: The names are really funny, but the diseases - they're so terrible. I actually saw witches' broom firsthand. I went to Ecuador, and I had a cocoa farmer show me a plantation that had been really hard hit.

SERGIO CENDENO: I almost cry when I see this - these trees - the whole farm.

VANEK SMITH: Sergio Cendeno is walking me through this plantation, and the trees are towering over us. They're really tall. It looks like we're in a forest instead of a cocoa plantation. And he points way up in the trees to where the cocoa pods are, and they look terrible. Normally, cocoa pods are bright yellow and the size of a football, but these pods are tiny and black and shriveled. And this - this is witches' broom.

They're just falling off the trees almost.

CENDENO: All are sick, all are sick. This - witches' broom, witches' broom.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, it's a lot of dead plants.

CENDENO: It's a disaster.

SMITH: It is a sad fact in this world that one of the things that human beings love and crave the most - cocoa - is also one of the hardest things to grow.


ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) This isn't sometimes. Yeah, it's for always...

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: No relation.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter). Today on the show, there is a solution to the worldwide cocoa shortage. One man in Ecuador came up with it single-handedly.

SMITH: But it is a solution that if you are a diehard chocolate lover, I got to warn you, you might not like it.


ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) 'Cause I remember the days I waited so patiently for God to bring someone who's going to be good to me. And then he blessed my soul.

SMITH: That cocoa fungus - witches' broom - it came to Ecuador in 1921. And it was like one of those fairytales when a curse comes over the land - seriously. Up until that point, cocoa was everything in Ecuador. People talked about how the smell of chocolate would fill the streets - this sweet, floral perfume.

VANEK SMITH: And at the time, the land was ruled by cocoa barons. They were rich guys. They dressed all in white, wore Panama hats and tall, black leather boots. They were known as Big Cocoa.

CENDENO: Grand cacao - the bigs - grand cacaos. So my grandfather was grand cacao. I am not grand cacao (laughter).

SMITH: Sergio Cendeno says he is not grand cacao because of the curse. The curse destroyed his family and destroyed all of the big cocoa plantations - everything - the trees, the economy. They just sort of shriveled up and died.

VANEK SMITH: Cocoa farmers went from being these rich barons to being some of the poorest people in the country.

SMITH: Ecuador was devastated. And like a fairytale, I guess, it needed a hero to save it. And then miraculously, a hero actually showed up. He was a man named Homero Castro.

VANEK SMITH: Tell me the story of Homero Castro. Was he...

CENDENO: We call him Homerito because he was so short.

VANEK SMITH: How tall was he? Was he taller than I am?

CENDENO: Like this.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, he's like 4 feet tall.


VANEK SMITH: Homerito.

CENDENO: Homerito.

VANEK SMITH: Homerito is not a cocoa farmer. He's not even from the cocoa-producing part of the country. He's a scientist. He's a plant biologist.

SMITH: And Homerito died a few years ago, but Sergio remembers this whole story vividly. Homerito was a family friend, and this whole thing starts back in the '60s. Sergio's a teenager at the time, and he's working on what's left of his family's cocoa plantation. A lot of the cocoa farmers of the country switched over to bananas and sugar cane, but Sergio's family kept trying to grow cocoa.

VANEK SMITH: And little Homerito, the plant scientist, he shows up in the town one day, asking everyone who will talk to him about cocoa, about witches' broom. And he came to hang out with Sergio's family almost every day.

CENDENO: Every afternoon, he went to the house there - very friendly, always joking, very kind with everybody, always talking about cocoa (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: During one of these visits, lying in a hammock, listening to the cicadas, which are incredibly loud here, Homerito tells them he has an idea. He tells them there's no way to save the grand, old cocoa trees of Ecuador. The fungus - witches' broom - it's just too strong. But he says what if we could create a whole new cocoa tree? A super cocoa plant.

SMITH: They would be immune to witches' broom, that would grow in tough places. More people around the world could grow it. They would produce tons of cocoa. This was the dream.

VANEK SMITH: But creating a new plant is really, really hard to do. And Homerito, he's not part of a university or an organization. It's just him. He's on his own.

SMITH: I love it - freelance plant scientist wandering the countryside (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Exactly, that's what he is. And he's just a guy by himself in this small agricultural town, but he starts breeding the plants, and it's this long, slow process.

SMITH: He travels the world. Anywhere they grow cocoa, he shows up - Africa, the Caribbean, Amazon. And he wants to collect the hardiest, the best cocoa plants he possibly can. He brings them back to Ecuador, and then he breeds them. He crosses this plant from the Caribbean with this plant from the Amazon just to see what kind of tree comes out of it.

CENDENO: For many years, crossing this variety with another variety again, again, again.

SMITH: And again and again and again, the plants would fail. And you have to start all over again. For 12 years, he does this.

CENDENO: And then - bingo.

VANEK SMITH: Bingo. He'd created a super cocoa tree. And, Sergio says, he can show it to me - the very first one of these trees.

Thank you.

We're walking through Sergio's family's old plantation. And there are trees everywhere. We cross over this really deep irrigation ditch, and we're going to this far corner of the plantation trying to find these first trees that Homerito planted.

CENDENO: This is the original tree- that tree.

VANEK SMITH: So I would not have even recognized this as a cocoa tree. It looks completely different. Where the classic Ecuadorian trees that I saw before - they were these sort of tall, elegant, towering trees - these trees, these new trees, are short and squat.

SMITH: Kind of like Homerito himself.

VANEK SMITH: Like Homerito himself. And also they are loaded with cocoa pods - huge, blood-red cocoa pods. They're, like, larger than my head. And Sergio - he puts his hand on the trunk of this tree.

SMITH: He hugs it.

VANEK SMITH: He hugs it.

CENDENO: It's very old - 46 years old. But it's still producing.

SMITH: All those years and witches' broom never touched it.

VANEK SMITH: I know, it was amazing. And Homerito - Homero Castro- he names this new tree after himself and the city where he lived - Collecion Castro Naranhal, CCN. And then he adds the number 51 because that is how many times it took him to get it right - CCN-51.

SMITH: CCN-51. Now, when the teenage Sergio - 46 years ago, he sees this tree, he thinks this is it. This is the answer. This can make cocoa a real business again. This can basically bring back his family's honor - bring back big cocoa.

VANEK SMITH: So Sergio saves up money. He buys land eventually - not that far away from here, from this original tree - and he plants the whole place with the new super cocoa. And after a little while, people from all over the world start hearing about this miracle tree, this tree that can produce 10 times more than a regular cocoa tree - 10 times.

SMITH: And executives from chocolate companies, they make this sort of a pilgrimage to go to Ecuador. Basically, get me my private plane, I have to go see the miracle tree.

CENDENO: They say this is incredible. People from Hershey, from Mars, from Cadbury, they see many pods in each tree - 40, 50, 60 pods in each tree. This is the paradise of cocoa. When they see, they believe.

SMITH: But when they taste, there is a small problem with CCN-51. Actually it's kind of a big problem. The actual cocoa in these pods - these big, beautiful, bounteous pods - the cocoa didn't really taste like cocoa.

VANEK SMITH: What does CCN-51 taste like?

GARY GUITTARD: I always kind of described it as very kind of rusty nails - sourness.

VANEK SMITH: Rusty nails?

GUITTARD: Yeah, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GUITTARD: That was kind of my description.

VANEK SMITH: That's bad.

GUITTARD: Yeah, yeah - no, it totally is.

VANEK SMITH: Gary Guittard tastes chocolate for a living. He runs his own chocolate company, Guittard Chocolates.

GUITTARD: You can't believe how bad it was. I mean, seriously. I mean, it just wasn't usable by anybody, not even in a blend.

SMITH: We talked to a lot of people about CCN-51. Other words they use to describe it...


SMITH: ...And...


SMITH: Worst of all...


SMITH: Dirt-flavored. Say what you will about the old cocoa, that it's disease-prone and fussy and hard to grow, but the old cocoa was delicious. The old beans had one of the most sought-after flavors in the world.

VANEK SMITH: Chocolate companies were horrified when they tasted CCN-51. That rusty nail flavor - they wouldn't use it, they wouldn't buy it. But farmers had all of these beans for the first time.

SMITH: They had a ton of them.

VANEK SMITH: They had a ton of beans. In order to sell it, the farmers started sneaking it in with the old, traditional beans - trying to pass it off. And chocolate companies freaked out so much that they actually downgraded Ecuadorian cocoa, and they threatened to pull Ecuador's fine cocoa status entirely.

SMITH: And this brings us to the sad part of this story. Homerito, Homero Castro, the cocoa genius, died in a car accident in 1988. And when he died, as far as he knew, his life's mission had failed. Like, he had created this super chocolate that farmers loved but chocolate companies hated. Nobody would eat it.

VANEK SMITH: And the story of CCN-51 might have ended there with Homerito's death, but two big things happened. First of all, about five years ago, they found a way to help the flavor. And Sergio showed me how they do this now. He showed me row after row after row of these burlap sacks sitting out in the sun.

CENDENO: Keep the cocoa here for three days - cover it.

VANEK SMITH: And when Sergio opened up one of these sacks, there were cocoa beans inside and I put my hand on the beans.

CENDENO: It's very hot.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. It's really warm.

CENDENO: It's warm.

VANEK SMITH: This process basically manages to take the horrible taste out of the cocoa. And nobody says that it tastes good, not even Sergio. But, you know, it's acceptable. It's kind of flat, kind of bland. It's OK.

SMITH: Then the second big thing happened. Chocolate companies realized maybe we don't have to be so picky. You know, for all the mystique and the history of fine cocoa, they figured out that customers - those of us who eat sort of chocolate off the grocery store shelves - we don't really seem to care if chocolate is a little bit bland.

VANEK SMITH: Well, Robert, think about it. I mean, a lot of the chocolate that we eat, like Rolos and Snickers and Cadbury Creme Eggs and all that stuff, I mean, they don't really taste like chocolate. They're flavored with vanilla and sugar and other things. It's not like the fine cocoa flavor is what's coming through.

SMITH: And so a few years ago, the big chocolate makers finally gave in. They started to buy the CCN-51, started to mix it in with other beans. If you've eaten a chocolate bar in the last few years, the odds are good that you have eaten CCN-51 without noticing that maybe there was a little hint of dirt in there.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, that is exactly what I heard from an actual chocolate maker in Ecuador. His name is Eduardo Marquez de la Plata, and he makes chocolate bars for a lot of companies, including a high-end grocery store here in the U.S.

EDUARDO MARQUEZ DE LA PLATA: At the beginning, especially the Europeans were concerned about mixing. Little by little, everybody's forgetting about the CCN - bad name that it had. And little by little, the ugly duckling is turning into a swan.

VANEK SMITH: Eduardo uses it, and he bets me if I taste it, I won't be able to tell. So he starts bringing out all these plates of chocolates for me to try.

SMITH: Just how many?

VANEK SMITH: Like, two dozen plates of chocolates for me to try.


VANEK SMITH: They don't have labels on them. They're all broken up. And he just keeps making me taste plate after plate after plate of chocolate. I eat a fair amount of fancy chocolate, and I think I'll at least be able to tell the difference between something that's really nice and, like, you know, a Hershey bar.

DE LA PLATA: Taste that. You like it?

VANEK SMITH: I do. Yeah, it's very - it's really like a light flavor. That's what I taste.

DE LA PLATA: Welcome to the CCN world.

VANEK SMITH: Was that CCN-51?


VANEK SMITH: It tastes very familiar.

SMITH: Not quite a compliment, but familiar is what a lot of chocolate makers are going for. So they have either solved the taste problem of CCN-51 or, you know, maybe - we were talking about this here in the newsroom - maybe none of us have as fine a palette for chocolate as we think that we do.

VANEK SMITH: Right, and I feel like this happens with a lot of things that we eat. I mean, there's always this breakthrough moment where food becomes easier to grow, a lot cheaper to produce. Farmers love it, and the companies love it.

SMITH: And then, all of a sudden, you have a tomato, which to be honest, does not taste like the one that your grandmother grew, but, you know, it is available in February. It is cheap. And you think fine, whatever. It is familiar.

VANEK SMITH: Well, not everybody thinks that. I mean, there's always a group of connoisseurs, people who are really passionate about this stuff, and they get upset. And really serious chocolate people hate CCN-51. They say it's ruining our taste for good stuff, for real cocoa. They also say that the fast-growing trees - the really productive trees - are bad for the soil.

SMITH: But, of course, CCN-51 is solving the problem we talked about at the very beginning - this chocolate shortage. It's on its way to being solved. It's now 50 percent of the crop in Ecuador. It's been grown in Peru, in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia.

VANEK SMITH: And Sergio Cendeno, the cocoa farmer who's been showing me around, he is totally fine with this. I mean, he watched his country get destroyed and come back all because of this one kind of cocoa plant. And does he miss the old chocolate? Yeah, he says, a little.

CENDENO: I am romantic 'cause I like the history. I like it. But this is a business. This is not romantic.

VANEK SMITH: Sergio has no doubt that Homerito's invention is the future of cocoa. And he doesn't think the flavor actually needs to be changed at all. He thinks maybe CCN-51 just needs a little rebranding.

CENDENO: The name is not too nice. We maybe - we're going to change. Maybe we are going to call Don Homero Coco.

VANEK SMITH: You can really feel the love that Sergio has for Homerito. He actually had a statue of him built in Naranhal - a statue of Homerito.

SMITH: So is this, like, a life-sized statue, you know, all 4-feet-tall of Homerito?

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter). No it's a bust of him. And he put it in a traffic circle in Naranhal, his hometown. And it has a plaque, and it has his name and his contributions to cocoa.

CENDENO: The cocoa man of Ecuador. There is no more like him.


ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) But I traveled a long way. And it took a long time to find you, but I finally found you.

SMITH: We would love to hear what you thought of today's show or any show you hear on PLANET MONEY. You should email us, planetmoney@npr.org, or we follow Twitter pretty closely. You can tweet us @planetmoney.

VANEK SMITH: Our producer for today's show is Jess Jiang.

SMITH: And now that we're at the end of the podcast, you should pull up another NPR podcast. We have a bunch of them. One I can recommend is LatinoUSA. They do great stories from around the world about Latinos who are living and shaping and changing the entire world. LatinoUSA, you can get on iTunes or however you get your podcast. I'm Robert Smith.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.


ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) But I traveled a long way, and it sure took a long time to find you, yeah. But I sure did find you. And he blessed my soul. And he blessed my soul. Yes, he did. Yes, he did. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.