Would smiles still exist in a world without chocolate? We may find out. Global chocolate consumption is far outpacing cocoa production, portending an ominous future in which chocolate prices rise drastically, and cheap chocolate products as we know them become a relic of the past. The Independent brings the gloom-and-doom:
John Mason, executive director and founder of the Ghana-based Nature Conservation Research Council, has forecast that shortages in bulk production in Africa will have a devastating effect: “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.”
The reason for this unimaginable shortage – which has been presaged by the doubling of cocoa prices in six years to an all-time high over the past three decades – is simple.
Farmers in the countries that produce the bulk of cocoa bought by the multinationals who control the market have found the crop a bitter harvest. The minimal rewards they have historically received do not provide incentives for the time-consuming work of replanting as their trees die off – a task that usually means moving to a new area of canopied forest and waiting three to five years for a new crop to mature.
“It’s hard to maintain production at high levels in a particular plot of land every time, because of pest problems that eat away at the yields and the farms need to be rejuvenated,” explains Thomas Dietsch, research director of ecosystem services at the Earthwatch Organisation. “Although research into new varieties and better management methods could solve those problems, the other challenge is that cocoa is competing for agricultural space with other commodities like palm oil – which is increasingly in demand for biofuels.”
Meanwhile, as the supply of the raw material diminishes, millions of new consumers in the developing world are becoming addicted to the sweet energy-fix at the end of the processing chain. “Chocolate consumption is increasing faster than cocoa production – and it’s not sustainable,” Tony Lass, chairman of the Cocoa Research Association, told the annual conference of Britain’s Academy of Chocolate last month.
Despite price rises on the trading floor, precious little reaches the smallholders who make up 95 per cent of growers, according to Mr. Lass, a former Cadburys trader and ethical sourcing advisor who has co-authored a book on the cocoa industry.
“These smallholders earn just 80 cents a day,” he says. “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.” As harvests diminish on the Ivory Coast, by far the world’s biggest cocoa producer, crops in Indonesia, the third largest producer, have been hit by a change in weather systems, forcing cocoa prices sky-high.
To make matters worse, the soil in Africa’s traditional cocoa fields is rapidly becoming depleted. “In Ghana and Ivory Coast the earth is dead where trees have already been harvested – there are no nutrients left in the soil.” And some farmers in West Africa have turned to child labor to compensate for the manpower shortage.