Experts Warn of a Looming Chocolate Crisis

Photo: Muffet / CC

In a world that takes for granted the availability of delicious and affordable chocolate, it's easy to forget that the popular product actually comes from trees -- not magical elves or free-flowing cocoa rivers, sadly. But, some experts are predicting that in a matter of decades a drop in production due to changing weather and agriculture incentives may make chocolate 'as expensive as gold'. "In 20 years chocolate will be like caviar. It will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won't be able to afford it," says one researcher. And if I know Joe as well as I think I do, this won't go over well.According to a report from The Independent, much of the world's cocoa is grown by farmers in West Africa -- and the world's collective sweet tooth may not be enough to make producing the crop worthwhile for them. One of the reasons has to do with just how labor-intensive cocoa production actually is. Cultivation of cocoa takes several years, as trees are slow to mature, not to mention they deplete the soil of nutrients in the process. Meanwhile, there's better money to be made elsewhere.

Tony Lass, chairman of the Cocoa Research Association, explains:

These smallholders earn just 80 cents a day. So there is no incentive to replant trees when they die off, and to wait up to five years for a new crop, and no younger generation around to do the replanting. The children of these African cocoa farmers, whose life expectancy is only 56, are heading for the cities rather than undertake backbreaking work for such a small reward.

Cocoa production also faces competition from other crops which farmers may find more financially appealing, like for palm-oil, driven by an increasing demand for biofuels, and rubber. Changes in weather patterns, too, have crippled production in places like Indonesia that might normally be there to pick up the slack.

All this leads to one unfortunate reality that's sure to give chocoholics the shakes -- and not from a sugar-rush. "Chocolate consumption is increasing faster than cocoa production and it's not sustainable," says Lass.

In the last few decades, these factors have already led to higher cocoa prices, but in the coming years they could put chocolate out of reach for the average consumer.

"Production will have decreased within 20 years to the point where we won't see any more cheap bars in vending machines," predicts Marc Demarquette, a British confectioner who a advised the BBC on a story about the coming chocolate crisis.

Experts say that changes in agricultural practices may very well avoid a chocolate crisis. For example, if small-scale farmers banded together, they might have more influence and incentive to keep growing the crop through programs like the Fair Trade initiative.

While is may be worrisome that one of the world's most delectable dessert options could soon be unavailable for all but the rich as the prices are set to skyrocket, it does delight the imagination to picture a world where chocolate is valued like gold -- which really isn't worth much, taste-wise.

Maybe in twenty years time, much of America's cocoa wealth will be placed behind the heavily-guarded walls of some secure military facility for safe keeping. Fort Chocs, perhaps?

More on Chocolate
Green & Black Chocolate Goes Fairtrade in the USA
How Much Dark Chocolate Should You Really Be Eating?
The Bitter Truth About Chocolate

Tags: Africa | Chocolate | Fair Trade | Farming

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