To 100 million Americans the word Hershey’s is synonymous with chocolate bars and those little kisses that fill the toe of your Christmas stocking. And these quintessentially American products (from Hershey, Pennsylvania) are nice, I admit, but they really can’t hold a candle to the ubiquitous chocolate chip.
Whoever invented the chocolate chip is a god. Really. Among the millions of inventions heralded every year, there are a handful of designs that will run the full course of human history due to their sheer genius, and this is one of them. Just look at it. So simple, so elegant, yet a thing of such complexity. From the hesitant kitchen ballet of an 8-year old striving to make her first batch of chocolate chip cookies to the more austere creations of Iron Chef Laura, the chocolate chip is a multifaceted thing of beauty — a diamond of ingenuity.
And who do we have to thank for a thing of such seemingly humble origins? Look across the sea to the crystalline palace of Zurich, where the eternally suave Julio Iglesias shatters the morning’s silence with a rousing “Ay Caramba!” as his feet hit the marble floor before tangoing down to breakfast with his 17 hijos and grabbing a steaming mug of chocolate to soothe his troubadour’s soul. There, on the palace on the hill, Nestlé is the undisputed king. If the Dutch invented chocolate, then the Swiss perfected its manufacture and marketing, and have harnessed chocolate’s power in a mad quest for world domination. If you thought tobacco and alcohol held sway over the senseless masses of humanity, then (although you were right) you missed the fact that chocolate holds pride of place among addictions that rule men’s lives. Make no mistake, however much we love it, this benign ruler — this most benevolent of dictators — remains a dictator when all is said and done.
An example of its gentle reign of terror is in order. Since the end of February 2006, the Zurich-based food giant Nestlé has owned the patent on genetically modified coffee plants which allegedly improve the solubility of powdered coffee. Although Nestlé announced to most of the world’s media that it was refraining from genetically modifying food, the acquisition of this patent shows that Nestlé speaks with standard issue forked-industrialist-tongue, pursuing genetic engineering for economic reasons and striving to gain total control of worldwide food production. The patent granted by the European Patent Office on February 22, 2006, refers to a genetically modified coffee plant with a blocked enzyme, designed to improve the solubility of the coffee powder. The patent covers the technical process of genetically modifying the plants as well as the use of coffee beans for the manufacture of soluble coffee.
While this might not seem alarming in a world where Monsanto has patented corn — one of three staple products, along with rice and the potato, that allow us to feed the world’s masses — I am alarmed that I am only now discovering the existence of the coffee patent. The fact that Nestlé applied for a patent on genetically modified coffee is not shocking in an of itself, of course, but that the patent office would so blithely auction off yet another product that allows the creation of a food monopoly is simply appalling. Even more appalling is that the whole coffee tree was patented as an “invention.”
As you might suspect, I am a devout believer in progress, but equally devout in my belief that patenting any part of the genetic code is a bad idea. Patenting the human genetic code is obviously problematic without any need to resort to nuanced philosophical argument, and patenting staple products upon which humanity relies is merely a short step down on the scale of terrible ideas. What’s really galling is that Nestlé didn’t stop with the coffee tree patent, but felt compelled to go after the cocoa bean as well — the sacred source of chocolate.
Before corruption could rot the foundations of creation (again) and throw us out of the chocolate garden of paradise, some soulful heroes channeling Hawkmoon’s spirit started the Cacao Genome Project, which published the 35,000 genes that make up the source code for chocolate, thereby saving the world from destruction at the greedy watchmaker’s hands. Now you can log in to this Open Source site, download the genetic code to chocolate and create your own private label chocolatería in your spare time.
When I have my grove of cacao in full bloom next spring, I plan to ring Charlie and start the wheels of production at my new chocolate factory. I’m calling it Chocolate Will Save You (Whether You Like It Or Not).