cacao-tree

A Worldwide Shortage of Chocolate

This year, the gap between how much cocoa the world wants to consume and how much it can produce will swell to 1 million metric tons, according to Mars Inc. and Barry Callebaut AG, the world’s largest chocolate maker. By 2030, the predicted shortfall will grow to 2 million tons.

Disease, drought, rapacious new markets and the displacement of cacao by more productive crops such as corn and rubber have all contributed to this demand gap. Essentially, the world is running out of chocolate. Last year, we again consumed more cocoa than we were able to produce. This has resulted in a surge in prices. From 1993 to 2007, the price of cocoa averaged $1,465 a ton; during the subsequent six years, the average was $2,736 — an 87 percent increase.

Efforts are under way to make chocolate cheap and abundant — in the process inadvertently rendering it as tasteless as today’s store-bought tomatoes, yet another food, along with chicken and strawberries, that went from flavorful to forgettable on the road to plenitude.

Hope exists, however, in the form of a brave new breed of cacao, engineered to be not just fecund and disease-free but also flavorful. This emerging super variety promises the world a steady supply of high-quality chocolate — and perhaps holds the key to how all future food should be grown.

Chocolate lovers rarely pause to consider that cocoa might be an exhaustible resource. Those who do generally assume that the biggest threat is climate change, which is indeed expected to have severe negative consequences. According to a report prepared by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Ghana and Ivory Coast — which together produce 53 percent of the world’s cocoa — temperatures will increase by up to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, intensifying the dry season and causing water shortages. The result, the report states, is that “cocoa-growing areas will decrease seriously.”

However catastrophic, the threat of drought pales in comparison with that of disease. Frosty pod colonized Costa Rica in just two years. Witches’ broom, another devastating fungus, in 1989 infiltrated the Brazilian state of Bahia, a cocoa-producing powerhouse whose yield subsequently collapsed, falling by more than half, from 300,000 tons to 130,000 tons annually, in a decade.

As drought and disease threaten to decimate cacao plantations worldwide, cocoa consumption is just beginning an inexorable upward trajectory. In 2010, according to the International Cocoa Organization, the Chinese ingested 40,000 tons of cocoa; this year, the country’s appetite will nearly double, to 70,000. Hershey Co. predicts China will be its second-largest market, after the U.S., by 2017. India’s consumption has similarly escalated, from 25,000 tons in 2010 to 40,000 this year.

The Search for a Durable Cacao Plant

The world is responding to the crisis in two ways. The first is that manufacturers will stretch their dwindling chocolate supplies by augmenting them with other ingredients, such as vanilla, vegetable fat and flavor chemicals. Chocolate bars will contain more nougat, nuts and other fillers. And their size will likely be reduced. Two years ago, Cadbury shaved almost 10 percent off its Dairy Milk bar, one of the U.K.’s most popular treats.

The second response is agricultural improvement. A new cacao seedling won’t produce fruit for two years at the earliest, and it takes 10 years to reveal traits worth perpetuating, such as resistance to disease and increased yield. Nevertheless, the race to improve cacao is accelerating. Of the multiple newly introduced strains, the most renowned comes from Costa Rica’s cocoa-producing rival to the south, Ecuador. CCN51, as the breed is called, is resistant to diseases that have plagued the crop and produces nearly seven times more beans than its traditional Ecuadorian counterpart. Unfortunately, there’s a major trade-off: taste.

The website The C-spot, which publishes flavor profiles of many varieties of cacao, describes CCN51 as “weak basal cocoa with thin fruit overlay; lead and wood shavings; astringent and acidic pulp; quite bitter.” Over the years, there have been efforts to augment CCN51’s fermentation process to smooth over its inadequacies. Experiments are underway in Central America by an organization known as Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE), to develop high-performing cacao.  These varieties should appeal to producers of high-quality chocolate because of their fine flavor.

Africa - the New Center of the Chocolate Universe

godiva-dark-orangeThe center of cacao production may shift to Africa. Africa has its own distinct cacao varieties, which play an essential role in the continent’s characteristic flavor profiles. If the flavor of African chocolate changes, then so too does the flavor of many of the world’s most-beloved blends. The world’s single largest cocoa-producing country, Ivory Coast, is planting new hybrids called mercedes. After decades spent preoccupied with disease resistance, the African cocoa industry is finally starting to take flavor seriously.

The future of chocolate now depends more than ever on human engineering.  The challenge may not be its survival so much as its taste and preserving the recently discovered health benefits of chocolate that we enjoy today.

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