Posted on March 21 2017
You don’t miss your water til your well runs dry. What could be more commonplace than a candy bar or a cup of hot chocolate? Always around, always cheap, always enjoyed, sometimes required. But the ubiquity of chocolate may diminish in years to come, because chocolate doesn’t just grow on trees. Well, actually it does grow on trees, but for various reasons, those trees are not doing as well as in times past.
Way back when, like 4,000 years ago, chocolate was making its way into the diet of pre-Olmec peoples of what is now Mexico. Theobroma cacao, the trees that grow cacao (or cocoa) beans originated in the rainforests of Ecuador. Moving by trade up into Mexico, Olmec farmers learned to grow it to insure a steady supply. They hadn’t quite figured out how to produce Dove bars, but nonetheless used the beans (seeds, actually) in the pods of the cacao tree to make a tasty treat. Fermenting, roasting, and grinding the beans into a powder, they added water and a number of other ingredients including vanilla and chili peppers for a beverage that apparently was bitter, but found favor for its other qualities. Given its power to provide an energy boost and a feeling of satisfaction, the drink took on a spiritual aura. Its consumption persisted with the Mayans and Aztecs—it is said that Montezuma, emperor of the Aztecs, drank it by the gallon for its aphrodisiac powers. When the Spanish showed up, they found it irresistible too.
The conquistadors didn’t worship it as the godly drink the Mesoamericans did, but they knew they’d found something unlike any flavor they’d grown up with, and carried it back to the Old World. As it was in the New World, chocolate was reserved for the rich and politically or religiously powerful. Spanish royalty and aristocrats had the privilege of enjoying it exclusively for some time before it spread to the well-to-do in the rest of Europe. Cacao by now had been paired with sugar, which undoubtedly delighted almost every taster’s palate. In order to fill the growing demand for cacao and sugar, European governments expanded development of plantations for these ingredients in tropical areas outside of the Americas, in Africa and Asia. Machine power and the discovery of cheaper and better methods of processing the cacao beans in the early 1800s made chocolate affordable to a wider range of the populous. Chocolate was on its way to hooking everybody.
Since it has been established as the basis for everything from solid Hershey bars, to Mars candy bars, to the fancy filler of fine heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s Day, chocolate has never gone out of fashion. Valued at nearly $100 billion worldwide, the market for chocolate is enormous, and growing.
The top cacao-producing country is Cote d’ Ivoire, by a good margin. Following strongly behind though, are other African nations such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. These four nations produce 70% of the world’s cacao. Indonesia is the third highest ranking overall, and after the leading African nations come tropical regions of South America such as Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. North of those, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are also big producers. That’s plenty of cacao to make tons of chocolate, so there should be well enough to go around… but the market is tightening.
Nothing affects the supply of a commodity like the demand created when a massive number of new consumers enter the market. As China turned its people toward a market economy the financial situation of many millions, if not billions, improved. One way to reward yourself for climbing the economic ladder is to enjoy a richer diet. Meat consumption there, for instance, has grown considerably in the last couple of decades, and the Chinese are now able to afford the joys of chocolate as well. Like everyone else, they want more of it. Next door, India is also economically ascendant, with a sweet tooth of their own. So the supply of cacao and chocolate has been squeezed, raising prices. That, of course, creates the opportunity to make money producing more cacao, but that’s where the scary part comes in.
Production of cacao is actually down, and especially so in the second-biggest producer, Ghana. Neighboring Cote d’ Ivoire, by way of contrast, has seen increased crop yields by applying advanced growing techniques, and this kind of effort will need to be made throughout the cacao-growing regions. Along with better cultivation, growers must find ways to beat an array of pests and fungal contaminants that can destroy the crops of the chocolate tree. With names like “witches broom,” “frosty pod rot,” and “black pod rot,” these biological scourges tend to infect one growing region or another, but the ease of international travel means transmission of diseases across oceans could happen swiftly. Compounding the problem, the ten varieties of cacao trees that exist all belong to the same species. There is limited ability for botanists to cross-breed strains to boost genetic resistance to these diseases. Such populations of gene similarity are at high risk of complete collapse when maladies come calling.
The health problems faced by the trees in and of themselves are a challenge. Exacerbating the situation is the specter of climate change. Heating in tropical latitudes is making prime growing areas too warm, and changing rainfall patterns have altered conditions required by these temperamental trees. Ill-timed flooding or drought can wipe out a crop. More intense monsoon rains can knock the flowers off trees so that the seed pods never even get a chance develop. As heat in current growing areas increases, the optimal temperature zones are moving north, but proper soils may not exist there. It’s a new weather world, and not a welcoming place for a tree with a narrow comfort zone and little biological flexibility.
Research groups are hard at the task of finding solutions for the future chocolate supply. Not only is there plenty of economic incentive to bolster the strength of the cacao tree, but the notion of a world without, or with much less chocolate, just seems too depressing to contemplate.