Are chocoholics safe from the pods of doom?

World supplies of chocolate are under threat from a deadly blight. Ann Treneman is grief-stricken

Ann Treneman
Tuesday 05 May 1998 23:02

UNTIL yesterday, black pod disease was the least of my worries. In fact, I didn't even know it existed. And then came the breakfast phone call. "Have you seen the news about chocolate? It's under threat!" said someone who may once have been classified as a friend. "Black pod disease is threatening to wipe out the cacao bean and that means chocolate could be as expensive as filet mignon! Will you be able to afford it?"

I poured myself another bowl of Choco-Flakes and reminded myself to screen my calls more carefully. Then I started to worry. Black pod disease sounded pretty bad: in fact, give or take a word or two, it could be the black death. Other questions hovered. Could it be related to Black Rod? And how did Ebola figure in all of this? And still the voice in my ear did not stop: "And there is also something called Witches' Broom which is killing all the trees in Brazil!"

I put the phone down and took stock. How had the supply of Terry's Chocolate Oranges been allowed to drop below five and why hadn't I purchased Cadbury's Mini-Eggs when they were a multi-buy bargain? The truth was that I was only a couple of dozen of Penguins away from a chocolate crisis.

But surely there must be some mistake. Perhaps it was just a case of those bastards who love to taunt us with the latest health news/scares/terrors having a bit of fun. If black pod disease was really about to make Mini- Eggs extinct, wouldn't I have known about this? But then I saw the news for myself, in black and white: "A new strain of the lethal black pod disease is threatening more than a millions tons of cocoa, leading food experts to predict a world shortage of chocolate."

Life was so unfair! Now what were those of us who rely on chocolate for our supplies of the stimulant theobromine and the love-drug phenylethylamine to do? Obviously such things would soon have to be obtained illegally in dark car parks and pub loos. A life of crime awaited. Our only hope was that New Labour would allow chocolate to be prescribed on the NHS. I could see the patches now.

But I seemed to be getting ahead of myself. First, surely, more information on black pod was required. It turns out that this thing is a cousin of potato blight, and once the fungus gets into a pod it all goes rotten. (Pods, just in case you haven't read Encylopaedia Britannica lately, are produced by the slow-growing trees after six years, are the size of small footballs and contain 40 cocoa beans each.) According to Tony Lass, an expert at Cadbury, a new strain of black pod has evolved in Africa and had quickly spread to the border of the Ivory Coast. "It's now sitting on the frontier," said Mr Lass, "where a million tons of cocoa a year is under threat."

I had no faith in Ivory Coast frontier control and immediately tried to ring Mr Lass at Cadbury's. He was "out" for the afternoon but there was a Mr Tony Frost who was speaking on behalf of black pod. "There is a new strain. What is it called? Black pod actually. A new strain of an old friend," he said with what could have been regarded as a dangerous nonchalance. "This news really came out of a conference held in Panama on what could be done to counter the pests and diseases besetting the cocoa plant. But you've got to keep in mind that we already lose 20 to 30 per cent of production to pests and disease. You've got to get that into context."

So what does that mean? Reprieve for Mini-Eggs? "This is certainly not a plague and the price is not going to shoot up to that of fillet steak," he said. I started to feel better and, as Mr Frost let rip with lots of info about sustainability and how it's better if the cocoa growers know each tree individually, I even began to relax. He began to tell me about pod borers (no relation to black pod, thankfully) and gave a very entertaining account of how Witches' Broom affects the flowers and causes tendril-like growths on the trees instead. "In fact, in Brazil we lost half of the product in one year and I don't suppose you even noticed," he said.

Sweet relief! And Alan Porter at the Chocolate Society was equally upbeat. "No, there are no worries. It's just hype. There really is no major crisis." But, I can't help but worry and perhaps it wouldn't hurt to stock up on Mini-Eggs just this once. After all, another lethal strain of black pod could strike at any time.

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