You crave it. You savor it. You love it. It's chocolate, and we collectively spend more than $98 billion a year on this sweet treat.
A growing number of fans around the world are gobbling it up, particularly in China, where chocolate sales have doubled in the past decade and a billion people are starting to enjoy the delectable treat the West has long devoured. Demand is outstripping supply, and a full-blown, one-ton chocolate shortage is predicted by 2020. Scientists are even predicting that chocolate may vanish entirely by 2050, as cacao plants will likely disappear due to warmer temperatures and drier weather conditions, reports Business Insider.
It's not that we're eating too much chocolate, necessarily (though America's obesity rates may say otherwise). Americans eat roughly 10 pounds of it a year per person. But we've got nothing on Europe: The Swiss eat nearly 20 pounds per person per year, and people in Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom eat 16 or 17 pounds a year, according to figures from market research company Euromonitor International.
While our waistlines and cholesterol levels may disagree, our affinity for chocolate isn't the reason — at least, not the entire reason — our supply is shrinking. The multi-pronged problem facing the chocolate industry starts at the root of the process: cocoa trees and beans.
Defenseless cocoa trees, multiple threats
The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is native to the Amazon river basin and tropical areas of Central and South America; these days, the growing area has expanded to parts of Africa and Asia that lie in a narrow belt 10 degrees either side of the Equator. Cocoa trees grow well in humid climates with regular rains and a short dry season, according to the World Agroforestry Centre. Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Brazil and Ecuador are the main producers.
The threats those trees — and the farmers responsible for them — face is different for each region:
West Africa: "Ghana's cacao trees suffer insect damage, black pod rot, water mold and the swollen shoot virus. Experts fear that these scourges are now attacking the healthier trees in neighboring Ivory Coast," reports Scientific American.
Asia: In Indonesia and Malaysia, a tiny moth called the cocoa pod borer tunnels into the center of the fruit and eats the seeds before tunneling back out. These pests, which cost cocoa growers $600 million in crop losses a year, are difficult to control and extremely damaging to cocoa-dependent economies, according to the Invasive Species Compendium.
Brazil: A fungal infection called witches' broom has reduced production by 80 percent, "driving people whose families had grown cacao for generations to abandon their farms and move to city shantytowns — effectively destroying in a few short years a vast archive of cacao-farming knowledge built over centuries," Scientific American reports. Another serious and damaging fungal disease called frosty pod rot is spreading through Latin America.
On a lesser threat level, cocoa trees have little genetic variation, and the major varieties (Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario) all come from the same species. Scientific American explains why that's not great news:
Although the similarity among strains means that growers can crossbreed them easily, it also means that the collected strains do not contain enough variation to provide much natural resilience to pests and disease; if one strain is genetically susceptible, chances are good they all will succumb. When farmers save their own seeds to plant new trees, this local inbreeding leaves the trees even more susceptible to pests and fungi.
A high price for cocoa farmers to pay
The crops for this multi-billion-dollar industry are grown by some of the poorest people in the world. And when crops are destroyed, their livelihoods are severely affected. Around 5 to 6 million farmers in the tropics grow cacao trees, according to Mars, Incorporated (a global chocolate and candy manufacturer), but they're walking away from the crop (and switching to more profitable ones like rubber or corn) in increasing numbers due to drought, pests and prices.
"In 1980 the international cocoa price was $3,750 a ton — equivalent to $10,000 a ton in 2013. Nowadays it is considered high at roughly $2,800 a ton, CNN reports. So if the demand for chocolate is going up, why is farmers' compensation going down? It's not an easy question to answer, but basically, it's because the industry is in crisis. As CNN explains:
The average age of a cocoa farmer is about 51 (not much lower than the average life expectancy); and across the Ivory Coast plantations are old, diseased and in need of regeneration. But regeneration requires investment, and the younger generation would rather migrate to the capital city, Abidjan, or switch to more lucrative crops like rubber or palm oil.
Now, companies like Cadbury, Cargill and Nestle have a business interest to invest in sustainable cocoa farming. And with an increasing spotlight on corporate accountability, chocolate-makers want consumers to know they're buying products with responsibly sourced cocoa. To support farmers and companies who employ them sustainably, look for fair trade certification labels on your chocolate bars or products.
Reversing the trend
This farmer in Ghana, where cocoa is the chief agricultural export and main cash crop, seems happy with his yield. (Photo: Rberchie/Wikimedia Commons)
From farmers to scientists and manufacturers, the chocolate industry's problems are being examined and tackled from all angles.
In England, a facility has been developed to grow cocoa in protected zones that are free from disease, and after two years the company ships them to countries around the world in hopes of growing cocoa that will produce stronger plants, the BBC reports. And in Costa Rica, a new breed of cacao has been engineered to be disease-free and flavorful, though it's still early in the development process, Bloomberg reports.
In Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, Nestlé has pledged $120 million over 10 years to breed disease resistant, high-yield cocoa saplings, and they plan to give away 12 million new plants to Ivorian farmers by 2016.
Farmer education efforts are underway through Mars, Incorporated to develop better planting, irrigation and pest-management techniques. Mars scientists also mapped the cocoa genome and made the results public so they could be used by anyone to develop better breeding practices that lead to healthier trees.
Using CRISPR, a technology that allows minute changes to DNA, researchers at the University of California are working with Mars to develop hardier cacao plants that won't wilt or rot if the weather isn't perfectly suitable and the less fragile plants will thrive in drier, warmer climate, reports Business Insider.
Hopefully, these efforts work to reverse declining cocoa production. If not, consumers may be paying a steeper price to satisfy their chocolate cravings.
Editor's note: This story was originally written in February 2017 and has been updated with new information.