Scary Monsters VIII

Kage Baker, as is well known, loved chocolate. She liked a lot of candy but nothing as much as theobromos. Her fondness was so well known that she got chocolate from strangers in the mail; people came up to her at Conventions and offered her exotic varieties; there were always bars of the local favourites left as gifts in her hotel rooms.

It was because she made theobromos THE intoxicant for her immortal cyborgs, of course. Kage used to say sometimes that she wished she had imbued the Operatives with a mad craving for rubies or Apple stock certificates, but she was an honest artist. She wrote from the heart. Also the limbic system, where pleasure circuits and addictive behaviour conspire to give us our more eccentric habits. And Kage’s limbic system liked chocolate.

But there was also an immortal truth in that plot point: because chocolate is an intoxicant for everyone. Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night will someday find that chili-infused, Breton-sea-salt semi-milk bar with cocoa nibs waiting for him in an alley: and when she’s done with him, he will wake up in a mall in the Valley, licking crumbs out of a cheap See’s wrapper …

It’s fitting, I guess, that in this season of monsters and scariness, there should arise news of  threats to the world cacao supply. Crinipellis perniciosa and Moniliophthora roreri are fungi which cause, respectively, witches’ broom disease and frosty pod rot. The disease course differs in them, but the end result is the same: no cacao pods. There are no known preventative or curative agents for either of these evil mushroom relatives, and so far only two real strategies seem to work.

The first is to destroy infected cacao trees – the old hoof and mouth remedy. Isolation is a part of this strategy as well, preventing the fruit of affected trees (mostly in their native South America) from infecting healthy crops in Africa where most cacao is now grown.

The second, still in its beginning stages, is to breed fungus-resistant trees. Some trees are always immune or at least harder to infect, and work is now underway locating these hardier specimens and breeding naturally resistant strains from them. (This has been tried before, notably in  Cambria CA with pitch-pine disease, and has shown good progress.) Scientists have  also been busy mapping the genome of the cacao plant. A first draft should be released by the end of this year, which will make identifying the resistant strains and then breeding them much easier and faster.

There was also an interesting little transaction over this summer that seemed to evade most people’s notice. In July of 2010, someone bought 241,000 tons of cocoa beans: the entire European supply for the year, and then some. It’s said to be worth over $650 million dollars. No one knows who did it. But someone, someone with a major sweet tooth, now owns most of the cocoa beans in the world.

So, what do we have here? Evil fungi attacking cacao pods – straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, that, sporulating minions of the cthonic depths contaminating our theobromos supply! If you eat the stuff, do you gradually turn in a grey, powdery, misshapen thing, mewling in a dark corner? Lots of things like that mewl around in dark corners in Lovecraft’s universe …

Opposing that is a valiant group of geneticists frantically mapping the helpless cacao trees’ genome, determined to awaken their latent superpowers. And if you don’t think that’s Kage’s Company in action, I – I just don’t know what to say, that’s all. It’s Dr. Zeus, I tell you!

Lastly, some unknown person with lots of money and a fondness for chocolate has acquired the entire European supply of raw cacao beans. Who can it be? Not Dr. Zeus this time, I think; the Future Kids don’t approve of theobromos. No, I think it has to be rebel operatives – the cyborg revolution is upon us! Or at least, the electronically enhanced buggers are gonna take all the chocolate for themselves …

These are pretty damned scary monsters, kids. I think I need a Hershey’s Bar …

Tomorrow: getting close

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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10 Responses to Scary Monsters VIII

  1. Medrith says:

    Gaaa! Chocolate- now- getting weak…


  2. Kara says:

    Oh chocolate IS food of the gods. Preach truth.

    Also, some company operative committed a Section Seventeen!


    • Kate says:

      Kage used to give lectures comparing the relative merits and uses of various chocolate – I must resurrect some of those. Very enlightening.
      As for the Chaplin film – more on that tomorrow. There IS an answer!


  3. Mark says:

    That “breed fungus-resistant trees” sometimes works…

    …if it isn’t a really nasty bug, that simply overwhelms an ecosystem. Consider the American chestnut, which when this continent was first colonized by Europeans was one of the dominant forest trees of Eastern North America. Chestnut forests reached from Maine to the Carolinas, and east to the Mississippi River in overwhelming stands. The mature trees grew 100-150′ tall, and could spread to cover 1/8 acre, producing dozens of bushels of nuts that fed both man and beast….and strong rot resistant lumber that grew faster and more usable than oak. It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut. Unfortunately, the introduction of Chinese Chestnuts in 1908 brought with them Asian Chestnut Blight….and a mass die-off of trees, since the disease eats the bark and eventually girdles mature trees. While many will re-sprout from stumps, they equally will die back again from the blight. The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 centimeters (24 in) in diameter within the tree’s former range is probably fewer than 100.

    While there are more mature specimens remaining in North America, most are scattered in places like Michigan, California, and Washington, where pioneers longing for “a breath of home” planted a few nuts to remind them of the East. There are actually a few good stands in CA’s Sierra foothills that date back to the Gold Rush. Back when I was running the living history program at a site outside of Roanoke, VA, we had a plot used by the American Chestnut Society in trying to hybridize Chinese Chestnuts w/ American ones…for their general resistance to blight. The problem is, the disease-resistance seemed linked to the Chinese traits…

    Imagine a super-bug that infested Cacao… With modern plane travel, it might not be limited by the slow overland 50 mile per year spread that Chestnut Blight experienced. Truly scary.


    • Kate says:

      mark – This is true. And the story of the American Chestnut is one of particular virulence and tragedy. The “breeding for resistance” program has been working rather better with Scotch pines and California Cypress, so far; and it shows promise with cacao as well. However, only time will tell. Cacao is a fragile plant, and international shipping has definitely exacerbated the problem; increased security and hygiene are both being employed, so far with positive results. Also, there are three distinct varieties of Cacao, and one of them shows an increased resistance to fungal infection just naturally.

      The genome analysis is a priority, too, for this specific reason. Things are looking better than they did, say, 5 years ago.

      Obviously, this has been of interest to Kage and me for some time …


  4. David says:

    This has happened before, with “interesting” results. Coffee plants (Coffea arabica) were struck with a worldwide blight in the late 19th century–“coffee rust” was the non-affectionate name for the fungus. (For a wonderful little sidetrip through the history of the British Empire, check out this series of letters describing the blight’s effect in Ceylon: The entire strain of coffee bearing plants was nearly wiped out, until lo! some French guys started harvesting from a “new” strain of plants. That strain (Coffea canephora, commonly called “Robusta”) was not even recognized as a species of coffee until the blight hit.

    Here are some of the aforementioned “interesting” results:

    Robusta is not only less susceptible to pests and disease, it grows at a lower altitude. This makes it also less likely to be hit by frost, a killer that has devastated the coffee market at least twice for Brazil. (If you don’t see this as all that important, consider that coffee has been named the second-highest traded commodity, only after oil.) It has a greater crop yield, takes less time to mature (two years instead of arabica’s seven), and has nearly twice the caffeine content of arabica coffee.

    The downside? It tastes nasty, by every account–a quick internet search will give you terms like “harsh”, “flat”, “bitter”, and “cereal-like”. It is SO nasty, in fact, that it was banned from the New York Coffee Exchange in 1912 because it was a “practically worthless bean”. This did not stop it from being blended with arabica to be sold in mass quantities, of course. The French (they pushed the robusta plant, remember?) use a 70-30 mix of robusta-arabica and roast the hell out of it to make “traditional” coffee. They then add milk before drinking to cut the evil taste. (The word “Latte” *means* milk, for pity’s sake!)

    My point? Let’s see, it’s around here somewhere…

    I guess it is only that I fear for chocolate. I am sure someone, somewhere will develop a “Better” Cacao bean, in the name of promoting and keeping the bean alive, but I worry about its quality, overall. In coffee’s later years, there has been a resurgence in getting ‘better quality’ coffee in the cup, but the consumer now has to pay a higher price to do that. Hopefully we won’t see that same challenge with chocolate.

    Although a certain Company could stand to make millions if this were the case. Not that said Company actually exists. I’m just sayin’.


  5. Jason Sinclair says:

    Damn. You spotted my plan.

    *sigh* Now I have to move everything. Again. Do you know how hard it is to hide 241,000 tons of beans?


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