Chocolate in Crisis?

In mid-November, Barry Callebaut (world’s leading chocolate manufacturer) and Mars, Inc. (a massive American chocolate producer) issued an ominous warning: by 2020, the world could see a 1 million ton chocolate deficit. This means that people will be consuming 1 million more tons of cocoa than farmers produce in a year. The trend of demand outpacing supply would have significant effects on the chocolate market, both in terms of prices and product quality.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 10.00.49 AMIn a nutshell, we eat more chocolate than is grown. “In 2013, the world consumed about 70,000 metric tons more cocoa than it produced,” the Atlantic reports. Part of the explanation for this is the recent, rapid rise of chocolate demand in Pacific Asia, especially China. Another factor contributing to the intensified consumption of cocoa is the increasing popularity of dark chocolate, which requires far more cocoa per unit volume than milk chocolate. Meanwhile, cocoa supplies have been suffering from diseases such as witch’s broom and frosty pod (which has sabotaged an estimated 30-40% of global cocoa production) and, more significantly, climate effects. Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia are the world’s top three cocoa producers hit by a drought that could persist through the coming months.

What is to be done about this increasingly-imbalanced demand-supply relationship? The obvious solutions would be to raise the prices of and/or shrink the sizes of chocolate products. Chocolate manufacturers have already raised their prices in response to cocoa’s 60% price jump since 2012. An alternative strategy for confectioners is to fill chocolate bars with more nuts, creams, etc. or combine cocoa with vegetable fat and flavor chemicals to stretch supplies.

Another option currently being explored involves growers, rather than manufacturers – genetic engineering. Farmers are experimenting with new strains of cacao, such as CCN51, which produces up to seven times as much cocoa as traditional plants and is resistant to some common diseases. The main flaw of CCN51, however, is its bitter flavor. Testers have likened its taste to “lead and wood shavings” and “astringent and acidic pulp,” which don’t sound like very appetizing candy bar varieties. In discussing these findings, Bloomberg writer Mark Schatzker says chocolate could suffer the same fate as store-bought tomatoes and strawberries: going “from flavorful to forgettable on the road to plenitude.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 10.01.02 AMIt might seem that our intense love of chocolate will lead us to ruin it, but there is still hope! The Central American agricultural research organization Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE) has developed three strains R-1, R-4, and R-6 with very similar traits to CCN51 as well as delicious flavors. R-4 and R-6 even won prizes in the International Cocoa Awards for having, respectively, “sweet, floral, and fruity notes” and “nutty and woody notes.” Although newly-planted cacao seedlings take at least two years to bear fruit. It will also take a decade of observation to determine whether their traits deserve to be preserved. These strains are quite promising and could save the world from a cocoa shortage without depriving us of the chocolate flavors we adore.

The world isn’t in a cocoa crisis, and researchers are working hard to make sure one never develops. Yet, if you feel moved to do something after reading this, consider buying fewer hot chocolates or gifting tins of gingerbread cookies rather than boxes of truffles this winter. And, of course, don’t dare throw any chocolate out!

Ever the chocoholic,


Ferdman, Roberto A. (The Washington Post) – The World’s Biggest Chocolate-Maker Says We’re Running Out of Chocolate

Garber, Megan (The Atlantic) – The Race to Save the World’s Chocolate

Javier, Luzi Ann et al. (Bloomberg) – Chocolate Eaters Drive Record Cocoa-Output Deficit: Commodities

Leberfinger, Mark – Worldwide Chocolate Shortage Linked to Drought in West Africa, Indonesia

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