How I spoke about the Dangers of CCN-51 in Ecuador and Elsewhere
Fine-quality cocoa has many challenges. It costs more, it is hard to get, and the supply is limited. However, since the 1960s, fine-quality cocoa has been under a slow and relentless barrage. Even within the fine-chocolate community, there is nary a word about the quiet battle that good-quality chocolate makers are facing each and every day. The battle is against a variety of cocoa called CCN-51.
CCN-51 was developed by researcher Homer Castro in the 1960s. It is highly productive and very disease resistant, traits that the large chocolate companies adore. At the same time, CCN-51 doesn’t taste good, and the quality of the chocolate made from it is far inferior compared to properly fermented and dried cocoa from traditional varieties. But because of its high productivity, the industrial chocolate companies have pushed hard for its introduction in such areas as Ecuador, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela, which are the heart and soul of fine flavor cocoa.
To address these issues, I had the great opportunity and honor to be invited to speak to the Congress of Ecuador at their capitol building in Quito. They wanted to hear about the state of CCN-51 from a premium chocolate maker, and in their view Amano is one of the foremost quality chocolate makers in the world. Because of this, it was important to them to take the view from Amano into account; hopefully this would benefit them in their sales to other fine-quality chocolate makers as well.
On my flight to Quito, it was amazing the number of volcanoes that I could see from the air. One volcano after another poked its way through the clouds. Ecuador has more volcanoes for its landmass than any other country on earth. In fact, Ecuador has 43 volcanoes, most of which have been active in recent memory. All I could think of as I watched them through the window as they slowly passed by was whether someday, I might be able to climb these volcanoes and see the tops of the clouds from them. It was an almost overwhelming desire and it was with sadness that I watched one after another fade as the next came into view.
When I arrived in Quito, I went directly to the hotel where I was being put up. When I walked into the lobby, I immediately realized that this was going to be a real treat. The hotel lobby was beautiful, and I could only imagine that my room was going to be equally as nice. When I’ve traveled to numerous cocoa-growing countries, quite often my accommodations are quite sparse. Having a line of ants crawling across the wall, mosquitoes buzzing about, and bug bites in the morning of unknown origin are quite the norm. This time around, however, was going to be far from that case.
The room was beautiful. I knew that after a long, hard travel, I would at least in the evening be able to rest peacefully.
Quito is the only place on the equator where the altitude is so high that it can snow. Quito is situated at 9,300 feet, which is amazingly high and creates some really unpredictable weather.
Most people don’t know (but it is obvious once you see it) that Ecuador actually means “equator,” and Ecuador’s position right on the equator is where the country gets its name. I wanted to see the equator while I was there, and so we went to visit the “equator.” The equator is of course a huge tourist trap, and there is the official line where you can stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time.
As luck would have it, a storm blew in, and once we arrived, the weather turned cold. Really, really cold. Since I was traveling to Equador, I had not bothered to bring warm weather gear, so I was shivering up my own storm in my short-sleeved t-shirt. The storm got worse and worse, and by the time I reached the official line on the equator, it was snowing—not very hard, but snowing nevertheless. It made me laugh at how I could stand on the equator while shivering in snow.
After visiting the equator, I went to lunch with some friends near the presidential palace. There was a huge military force surrounding the palace, complete with armored personnel carriers. It turned out that there had been a huge riot around the palace just two to three days before, and the military was very, very nervous about a coup attempt. I thought about trying to get my picture taken with some of the military officers, but for some reason I felt they would not think it as exciting as I did.
Lunch was delicious. One of the appetizers was puffed corn. In Ecuador, and many of the cocoa-growing countries, it is common to eat puffed corn. This is like the kernels of popcorn that puff but do not pop all the way. They are lightly salted and make a really nice crunchy appetizer or treat.
The next day, I was picked up by my friend Lourdes. We were running a bit late, so we zoomed through Quito. Quito is constructed on a bunch of mountain “fingers,” so there is often no way to drive from point A to point B. To go from A to B, you have to zoom in and out on the various fingers of the city, which, combined with the fact that many of the roads are one-way roads, makes getting around very complicated, and it can take much longer than planned to go anywhere.
Being late to speak to the Ecuadorian Congress would be a impolite, so we zoomed in and out of traffic as fast as we could. It wasn’t too far (as the crow flies) to the capitol building, but because it was a few “fingers” away, getting there was going to take much longer than we had hoped. We prayed as we zoomed in and out of traffic that we would not get pulled over by the police, because we were certainly breaking just about every traffic rule there was.
Finally, we arrived at the capitol building, with five minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we were still in the car zooming around the capitol, and there was not a parking space to be found. We circled and circled and circled. Every car along the road was parked bumper to bumper, and there was no sign that any cars were going to pull out. Eventually, we pulled over, talked to one of the many security guards who surrounded the building. and explained the situation. We ended up parking in the driveway that led to the dumpster, and the security guard stood watch to make sure that the trash truck didn’t come by before we came back.
We were five minutes late at this point. We sprinted around to the front of the building and quickly rushed through security, metal detectors, and whatever else had been dreamed up to make sure we weren’t troublemakers or going to state our own coup. Security pointed us up a few floors, and we jumped on the elevator and breathed a big sigh of relief.
When we exited the elevator, we were pointed to a conference room where the members of congress sat and were engaged in a big discussion. We sat down in the hallway and watched through the glass as their discussion went on and on and on. It was about forty-five minutes before we could see that discussions were wrapping up. The irony wasn’t lost on me how we had zoomed through the city breaking every traffic law imaginable, and here we were waiting and waiting.
One of the dignitaries in the room came into the hallway and waved us in. We had a quick round of discussions, in which we introduced ourselves to each member of congress and they to us. It was all very cordial. Lourdes has also fought against the ever- widening reach of CCN-51. She started off and argued for the preservation of Nacional and the complete banning of CCN-51.
Eventually, it was my turn to speak. The basic points I made before the Ecuadorian congress were these:
1) Ecuador has been legendary for the fine flavor of its cocoa. As they were aware, for hundreds of years, people have traveled to Ecuador to purchase Ecuador’s unique variety of cocoa –Nacional. I told them that Nacional has a flavor that is not found anywhere else in the world, and that it is a national treasure that is unique to Ecuador.
2) Despite what has been represented by the large chocolate companies, CCN-51 is not a fine-flavor cocoa. In fact, in my view that it can not be used to make fine-quality chocolate. The flavor of CCN-51 is simply not that good, and our opinion of CCN-51 is so low that we will not allow CCN-51 into our factory.
3) By growing CCN-51, Ecuador not competing anymore with price for Nacional, which has always commanded a nice premium, but Ecuador is competing on the world market. If someone wants the flavor of Nacional, the only way that they can get it is to buy cocoa from Ecuador. However, with CCN-51 they will be competing against everybody who plants CCN-51 throughout the world. If Africa is able to produce CCN-51 for less, people will buy their cocoa from Africa. If Indonesia is able to produce CCN-51 for less, people will buy their cocoa from Indonesia. The people who purchase CCN-51 are the same people who are not interested in flavor, and so price will be the deciding factor. On the other hand, the people who purchase Nacional traditionally are those who are more interested in flavor, and so price plays a much smaller role in the buying decision. By planting and supporting CCN-51, Ecuador is catering to a market where price is the most important factor.
4) As CCN-51 become more prominent, Ecuador faces a crisis in which its precious Nacional could be lost due to cross-pollination between native varieties and CCN-51. This loss of a national heritage literally traces way back thousands of years through the selective breeding by their forefathers.
5) CCN-51 faces the same problem that mono-cropping always does. CCN-51 plants are effectively clones, because they are spread by grafting. This means that all CCN-51 are genetically identical. Plants that are genetically identical face the problem that if a disease is capable of hurting or even killing one individual plant, this same disease is capable of killing all of the same plants with the same genetics. Ecuador had already faced a plague in the 1920s that killed off almost all of its cocoa, and planting enormous quantities of a single strain of cocoa is simply asking this to happen again, but now on a much larger scale.
This problem exists with all mono-cropping – not just CCN-51.
I concluded by requesting that they give serious consideration to any further planting of this clone. In the least, CCN-51 should be planted separately from Nacional, with an adequate buffer zone around the CCN-51 plantation so that there is lower possibility of cross pollination. I praised the flavor of the Nacional cocoa and explained that they truly have something special, and it is up to them to really let the world know what a treasure they have, and they should not let it slip away.
At this point, I broke out our Guayas chocolate and gave each member of the congress a bar so that they could taste what pure Nacional tastes like. (We go through extraordinary efforts to ensure that there is no CCN-51 in our Guayas chocolate.) I broke out another bar and then gave each member a piece. They were all very impressed and spent a large amount of time talking about how delicious it was. We took a few pictures shook hands and went our separate ways.
Lourdes and I walked out and talked about how we believed it had been a productive meeting, and those present seemed receptive to our message. We then made our way to our car in the back of the capitol building and were extremely happy that the guard was still watching over our car, which hadn’t been towed.
It is my hope that our message was indeed heard. It would truly be a shame if Ecuador’s prized cocoa Nactional were lost. It would even be worse if it were lost to a variety of cocoa that historically does not make good-quality chocolate and can be found in so many other cocoa-growing countries.
As consumers, I believe it important that we check with the chocolate makers we buy our chocolate from to see if they have any chocolate that is polluted by CCN-51, and if there is any sort of company policy about working with it. I know that at least as far as Amano is concerned, we won’t let it into our factory in any form.
It was a huge honor to be invited to speak to the Ecuadorian congress. After it was all over, I went back to my hotel and enjoyed taking a nap on my nice big soft bed.