Chocolate, in its many varied forms, is one of the world’s most popular foods. From its beginnings in early Mesoamerican civilizations to its current global ubiquity, it is a confection that can even inspire an almost fanatic following.
But a possible looming shortage of chocolate could spell disaster for the 50-billion-dollar industry and result in a nightmare for chocoholics. Consumers are buying more chocolate than producers can grow and cacao prices have gone up by 25 percent in the past year. In Asia, demand has skyrocketed to a rate seven times that of Europe. Even Brazil, once a leader in chocolate production, is now a net importer of cacao.
West Africa is the region that produces most of the world’s cacao, with 50 percent of the world’s crop coming from the Ivory Coast. Scares over the Ebola virus are hardly helping African exports, though the Ivory Coast, along with fellow chocolate giant Ghana, has remained Ebola-free. Increased global imports from Latin American and Caribbean chocolate producers due to fears about Africa could result in further price climbs.
Brazil: A return to chocolate greatness?
One hundred years ago, Brazil was the world’s leading producer of chocolate. Vast areas of biodiverse rainforest in the northeastern state of Bahia were converted to monoculture cacao plantations, but the lack of genetic variation left the chocolate trees vulnerable to disease.
The death knell of the Brazilian chocolate industry came in the form of a fungus called Moniliophthora perniciosa, which results in pink mushrooms and later, broom-like green growths. “Witches’ broom disease,” as Moniliophthora perniciosa is commonly called, wiped out 70 percent of Brazil’s chocolate industry, resulting in a social and economic disaster for some 2 million people.
For the past 14 years, scientists at the State University of Campinas in São Paulo state have been working on a cure for witches’ broom disease, and their findings have just been published in the journal Plant Cell.
Using healthy plants as a reference point, the scientists identified 1,967 genes that exhibited unique activities in the green broom structures of infected chocolate trees. An analysis of these genes showed that fungal infection triggers massive changes in the metabolism of the chocolate tree. Additionally, the scientists discovered 8,617 fungal genes that were active in green brooms.
Could a cure for witches’ broom disease help propel Brazil back into its former lead-producer status?
It’s impossible to say at the moment, but chocolate production in Latin America’s largest economy is already on the rise. The world’s largest chocolate producer, Barry Callebaut — no, I’ve never heard of them either — has invested US$11.5 million in expanding their factory in Minas Gerais state. At the same time, Barry Callebaut is joining conservationists and other chocolate manufacturers, like Mars, in warning that the world could face a cacao shortage by 2020.
Call me a chocolate cynic, but sometimes big companies like to use these kinds of situations to raise prices and then keep them high, with Big Oil one of the most notorious offenders when it comes to this strategy.
Yet environmental pressures like climate change, together with increased consumer demand for chocolate and the current Ebola scare, create a perfect storm for a chocolate crisis. It’s a shame chocolate manufacturers and consumers weren’t similarly put off by child slavery on African cacao plantations.
Check out this Reuters video report for more: