The history of chocolate – and the multi-billion dollar industry it has become – begins in Mexico.
The tree Theobroma cacao is native to the tropics of America and the Aztecs believed cocoa seeds were a gift from the god Quetzalcóatl, mixing them with spices and corn to make a bitter drink.
"Chocolate and cocoa are products that belong to Mexican heritage and distinguish us internationally," said ASCHOCO, the national trade association for chocolate and confectionery. "Mexico has provided an infinity of uses and combinations of flavors. [We are] working to raise awareness about the importance of reactivating the cultivation of cocoa in the Mexican countryside."
Despite the fact that cocoa and chocolate comes from Mexico, the country’s cocoa production plunged in recent years.
Around 15 years ago, Mexico was producing around 50,000 MT of cocoa a year. Today, this is around 25,000 MT, grown on 59,800 hectares of land, according to ASCHOCO.
“The great challenge of the industry is to find [enough] raw material,” said Miguel Ángel Saínz Trapaga, president of chocolate and confectionery trade association CONFIMEX.
"[Faced with] the problem that only 27 tons are produced in our Mexican fields, companies are forced to import raw materials to complete the annual production that is estimated to be between 70 and 75 tons.”
When cocoa prices fell in 2001, Mexican farmers were hit hard and many switched to other crops to boost their income. Then, in 2005, frosty pod rot (moniliasis disease) spread through the growing regions, devastating the remaining farmers’ crops.
Other issues - such as an aging farming population, a lack of technical know-how and organization, a lack of access to capital and infrastructure - have exacerbated the problem, said Vazquez Huitron.
“[All this] makes the production of cocoa less productive,” said Mauricio Vazquez Huitron, president of ASCHOCO’s cocoa commission and managing director of IMCO.
According to Vazquez Huitron, the “legendary origin” of cocoa gives Mexico a great advantage over other cocoa-growing countries in Latin America.
“The first plantations were established by Olmec and Mayas in the south of Mexico, under a diversity of plants associated with cacao.”
“It is our goal to position Mexico as the origin of chocolate and cacao in the world,” Vazquez Huitron told FoodNavigator-LATAM. “We are encouraging producers […] to produce only fine and flavor cacao beans as we do now.”
According to the International Cocoa Organization, ICCO, 100% of Mexico’s cocoa exports are already considered fine flavor beans.
What is Fine or Flavor Cocoa?
The world cocoa market distinguishes between two broad categories of cocoa beans: ‘fine or flavor’ cocoa beans, and ‘bulk’ or ‘ordinary’ cocoa beans.
Fine or flavor cocoa beans are generally produced from Criollo or Trinitario cocoa tree varieties, while bulk (or ordinary) cocoa beans come from Forastero trees.
Fine flavors include fruit, floral, herbal, woody, nutty and caramel notes.
The quality of fine or flavor cocoa usually depends on a combination of criteria. These include the genetic origin of planting material, morphological characteristics of the plant, color, flavor and chemical characteristics of the cocoa beans, degree of fermentation, acidity, off-flavors and percentage of impurities.
'High production potential'
Most of Mexico’s cocoa production is concentrated in the states of Tabasco (68.8%) and Chiapas (31.1%), together accounting for 99% of total national production, according to data from the Agri-Food and Fisheries Information Service. Very small quantities are also produced in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Veracruz.
But Vazquez Huitron said Mexico has “high production potential” and the Ministry of Agriculture estimates the country has 1,552,770 hectares of available land in cocoa-growing regions.
“Thousands of Mexican farmers” could cultivate cocoa with government and private support, he added.
There are a number of actions that could be implemented to make this a reality, ASCHOCO said. These include diversifying other crops with cocoa; putting in place agronomy training programs coordinated by technical advisors and providing machinery and equipment; promoting cocoa culture nationwide; and increasing production of the criollo variety as well as organic cocoa. (Organic currently makes up less than 2% of Mexico’s cocoa output).
As a trade association, ASCHOCO does not invest directly in this but helps, promotes and communicates the programs that its member companies carry out and, according to Vazquez Huitron, both public and private players are getting involved.
He represents chocolate manufactururs in Sispro Cacao Mexico, a government initiative that brings together the players in Mexico’s chocolate industry, from producers to traders, manufacturers to researchers, aiming to increase production of fine-flavored cocoa for both domestic and international markets.
Manufacturers such as Hershey, Mars and Nestle also have cocoa programs in the country, he added.
Tonathiu Acevedo, ASCHOCO board member, said: "Since 2013, we have worked on the reactivation of the field of cocoa with demonstration plots, donating cocoa plants and giving agricultural advice. There is a great challenge in this area to reach the estimated 30,000 cocoa producers in Mexico.”
'Mexico has great cacaos that were unknown to many buyers'
Environmental non-profit organization Conservation International is also working to bring back cocoa to Mexico.
The loss of cocoa production in Mexico over the past fifteen years or so has resulted in the loss of valuable traditional knowledge of many communities and deforestation across Tabasco and Chiapas, it says.
As farmers clear land to grow maize, palm oil, and rear livestock, they also destroy forests where cocoa trees grew alongside other native trees and plants.
In 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine and its use of native ingredients such as cocoa and vanilla, was recognized by UNESCO as part of humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Together with the Autonomous University of Chiapas (UNACH), it provided technical assistance to cocoa farmers and helped establish the Rayen cooperative. This collective selling power allowed the farmers to sell to international traders and Mexican chocolatiers.
Conservation International said that in just two years, the farmers increased cocoa yield per hectare from an average of 50 kg to 200 to 300 kg, allowing them to more than double their income.
David Olvera, ecosystem services manager for Conservation International (CI) in Mexico said in a CI blogpost: “Diverse, fine flavors of cacao are in high demand, and Mexico has some great cacaos that were unknown to many buyers. Now, people get to experience this great-tasting chocolate, while farmers bring home more money for themselves and their families.”