Mark your calendar: January 1, 2020.
As this future year unfolds, the gap between how much cocoa the world wants to consume and how much it can produce will swell to 1 million metric tons, according to Mars Inc. and Barry Callebaut AG, the world’s largest chocolate maker. By 2030, the predicted shortfall will grow to 2 million tons. And so on.
Because of disease, drought, rapacious new markets and the displacement of cacao by more-productive crops such as corn and rubber, demand is expected to outstrip supply by an additional 1 million tons every decade for the foreseeable future. Here, now, as you read these words, the world is running out of chocolate, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Holiday 2014 issue.
Last year, we again consumed more cocoa than we were able to produce. This year, despite an unexpected bumper crop, supply barely kept pace with the recent upswing in demand. From 1993 to 2007, the price of cocoa averaged $1,465 a ton; during the subsequent six years, the average was $2,736 -- an 87 percent increase.
The world’s most universally delectable treat has begun a journey from being very loved and very common, like beer, to being very loved and a good deal less common, like Bordeaux. Unfortunately, that is the least of the confection’s problems.
Efforts are under way to make chocolate cheap and abundant -- in the process inadvertently rendering it as tasteless as today’s store-bought tomatoes, yet another food, along with chicken and strawberries, that went from flavorful to forgettable on the road to plenitude.
Hope exists, however, in the form of a brave new breed of cacao, engineered to be not just fecund and disease-free but also flavorful. This emerging supervariety promises the world a steady supply of high-quality chocolate -- and perhaps holds the key to how all future food should be grown.
In the far north of Costa Rica, just outside the town of Upala, stands a field that should unsettle anyone who enjoys chocolate. The view there is of corn -- as far as the eye can see. The stalks aren’t as military-formation perfect as in Nebraska, but the crop is as thick as they come. Farther down the road, there are dairy cows grazing on pastureland, soaring plantations of hardwood trees and fields of cassava. Every few kilometers, there is a pineapple farm; at least once an hour, it seems, a fruit-laden truck comes whining down the road.
The one crop you won’t see is cacao, the tree whose seeds are fermented and roasted to become cocoa. Cacao used to be big here. At one time, it grew so thick there were no dairy cows or pineapples. Miguel Orozco used to raise it on this 12-hectare (30-acre) plot planted by his grandfather, and it earned him enough money to send all seven of his children to college or university.
In 1978, a fungal disease called frosty pod was found on cacao pods along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. A year later, the disease had made its way inland, and before long, two of Orozco’s sons found pods on their plantation blighted with brown lesions covered in a white, cottony powder.
For 10 years, the Orozco family waged war on frosty pod. They covered the diseased pods in oil, buried them in large pits and burned them. Eventually, there were too many rotten pods to burn, and a little more than a decade after the disease had first been discovered, Orozco and his sons took a chain saw to every cacao tree until all dozen hectares had been cleared. The family’s annual harvest of 12,000 kilograms (26,000 pounds) of high-quality cocoa beans -- enough for more than 600,000 1.5-ounce bars of milk chocolate -- was gone.
Chocolate lovers rarely pause to consider that cocoa might be an exhaustible resource. Those who do generally assume that the biggest threat is climate change, which is indeed expected to have severe negative consequences. According to a report prepared by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Ghana and Ivory Coast -- which together produce 53 percent of the world’s cocoa -- temperatures will increase by up to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, intensifying the dry season and causing water shortages. The result, the report states, is that “cocoa-growing areas will decrease seriously.”
However catastrophic, the threat of drought pales in comparison with that of disease. Frosty pod colonized Costa Rica in just two years. Witches’ broom, another devastating fungus, in 1989 infiltrated the Brazilian state of Bahia, a cocoa-producing powerhouse whose yield subsequently collapsed, falling by more than half, from 300,000 tons to 130,000 tons annually, in a decade.
Before witches’ broom, Brazil was the world’s second-largest exporter of cocoa. Today, it’s a net importer. Neither frosty pod nor witches’ broom have yet descended on Africa -- cocoa’s undisputed breadbasket, responsible for 70 percent of the planet’s production -- but Mark Guiltinan, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University specializing in cacao, believes it’s only a matter of time.
It’s possible that an ecotourist could visit a Costa Rican cacao plantation one week and another in Nigeria the next, accidentally spreading a fungal spore that could bring cocoa production to its knees. Far more likely, however, is that someone will inadvertently transport cacao pods without first checking for infection.
“We have guidelines for safe movement of germ plasm,” Guiltinan says, referring to the living tissue from which new plants can be grown, “but scientists are the only ones who follow them.”
As drought and disease threaten to decimate cacao plantations worldwide, cocoa consumption is just beginning an inexorable upward trajectory. In 2010, according to the International Cocoa Organization, the Chinese ingested 40,000 tons of cocoa; this year, the country’s appetite will nearly double, to 70,000.
Hershey Co. predicts China will be its second-largest market, after the U.S., by 2017. India’s consumption has similarly escalated, from 25,000 tons in 2010 to 40,000 this year.
Despite the devastation wrought by witches’ broom, even Brazil increased its chocolate habit, from 161,000 tons in 2010 to 198,000 this year. As developing nations gather strength, so too does their appetite for chocolate.
The world will respond to the mounting crisis in two ways. The first is that manufacturers will stretch their dwindling chocolate supplies by augmenting them with other ingredients, such as vanilla, vegetable fat and flavor chemicals. Chocolate bars will contain more nougat, nuts and other fillers. And their size will likely be reduced.
Angus Kennedy, a former editor of Kennedy’s Confection magazine, says that’s already happening. Two years ago, Cadbury shaved almost 10 percent off its Dairy Milk bar, one of the U.K.’s most popular treats.
The second response is more invidious: so-called agricultural improvement. Nineteenth-century economist Thomas Robert Malthus’s prediction that all of humanity would starve as the planet ran out of farmland never came to pass because, decade after decade, we’ve coaxed our crops to yield ever more bountiful harvests. From 1901 to 2012, for example, U.S. corn yields went from 18 bushels an acre to 170.
The reason chocolate hasn’t followed suit is because cacao takes so long to grow and, as a result, to improve. A corn breeder can raise three new generations of corn in a single year -- three opportunities to select for desirable traits. A new cacao seedling, by comparison, won’t produce fruit for two years at the earliest, and it takes 10 years to reveal traits worth perpetuating, such as resistance to frosty pod and increased yield.
Nevertheless, the race to improve cacao is accelerating. Of the multiple newly introduced strains, the most renowned comes from Costa Rica’s cocoa-producing rival to the south, Ecuador. CCN51, as the breed is called, is resistant to witches’ broom and produces nearly seven times more beans than its traditional Ecuadorian counterpart. Unfortunately, there’s a major trade-off: taste.
The website The C-spot, which publishes flavor profiles of many varieties of cacao, describes CCN51 as “weak basal cocoa with thin fruit overlay; lead and wood shavings; astringent and acidic pulp; quite bitter.”
No one is more worried about flavor than a Mormon grandfather from Hanover, Pennsylvania, named Ed Seguine, who possesses one of the most sensitive and sought-after palates in the industry. In the 31 years he’s spent consulting, he’s consumed some 300,000 chocolate samples and is so concerned with the potential erosion of flavor that he’s dedicated the remainder of his career to preventing it. He, too, has sampled CCN51 and describes its flavor as “acidic dirt.”
To Seguine, this is in no way surprising. When breeders set out to improve a plant, he explains, rarely do they focus on flavor. When generation after generation is subjected to a single-minded focus on abundance, taste is the inevitable casualty. Many chocolate makers outright refuse to use CCN51 beans. Guittard Chocolate Co., one of the finest chocolatiers in the U.S., is one of them.
“I think it has lowered the quality of Ecuadorean cocoa,” says Gary Guittard, the company’s president, who worries about the “incremental degradation” new varieties like CCN51 will visit upon chocolate.
Over the years, there have been efforts to augment CCN51’s fermentation process to smooth over its most-glaring inadequacies.
“It’s better,” Seguine says, “but even the best CCN51 is just average.”
If there’s hope for the flavor of chocolate, it’s growing 33 kilometers (21 miles) southeast of Upala, where a farmer named Jose Gerardo Ramirez has plowed under 7 hectares of pineapples in favor of a potentially far more lucrative crop: high-performing cacao developed by a Central American agricultural research organization called Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza, or CATIE.
The saplings Ramirez planted in 2012 produced their first harvest this year. The yield was minuscule, but within a few years, Ramirez expects to be reaping harvests of 1,500 kilograms a hectare -- more than seven times the Costa Rican average. He’s not worried about frosty pod, because his trees are resistant. More important, the strains -- dubbed R-1, R-4 and R-6 -- should appeal to Guittard and other producers of high-quality chocolate because of their fine flavor.
That flavor owes a debt of gratitude to, of all things, frosty pod. In the early 1980s, CATIE embarked on a truly ambitious task: spraying frosty pod spores on as many different cacao varieties as possible -- from Ecuador, Guyana, the Upper Amazon -- and mating the most-resistant trees with one another - - like breeding corn but in ultra-slow motion.
In 1995, Wilbert Phillips-Mora, one of the world’s foremost experts on frosty pod, took over the cacao program at CATIE. Ten years later, he began sending beans from his most productive and disease-resistant plants to Seguine, who assessed them for flavor. Some tasted like CCN51 -- acidic and dirty. Most were just average.
A few of the beans, however, exhibited the bright, deep, mesmerizing notes that make chocolate such an ethereal experience. In 2009, two of Seguine’s top choices were entered into the International Cocoa Awards at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. Both beans won prizes. R-4 was recognized for having sweet, floral and fruity notes. R-6 was celebrated for its nutty and woody notes, with undertones of brown fruit and chocolate.
Both varieties could usher in a renaissance not only for Costa Rican cocoa but for all food. What CATIE and Seguine have demonstrated is that quantity and quality needn’t be a zero-sum game; that you can cultivate a bumper crop without sacrificing flavor; that what’s true for chocolate might also prove true for chicken and tomatoes and every other flavor-challenged food. The future really could taste better than the past. The question is, will it?
The day after meeting Ramirez, I get a glimpse of what that tomorrow might taste like. In a lab at CATIE’s Costa Rican headquarters, a sprawling campus surrounded by volcanic mountains layered in mist, Phillips-Mora and I sit down in front of ostensibly identical rectangles of dark chocolate.
In the mouth, however, each tells a very different story. The bar made from R-1 cacao is fruity with a pronounced chocolaty taste. R-4 tastes less fruity and more acidic but still pleasant. The closest CATIE has come to a supervariety is R-6 -- the most prolific producer with the best resistance to frosty pod. Its flavor, as the Salon du Chocolat observed, is nutty and woody, with top notes of fruit. Phillips-Mora picks up citrus. I get raisins.
Next, we taste a Ghanaian chocolate that Seguine has shipped down from Pennsylvania. The difference is astounding. Whereas the bite of Costa Rican is fruity and complex, the Ghanaian is an eruption of deep chocolate. I am unexpectedly reminded of milkshakes from my childhood, the likes of which no one seems able to make anymore.
“It lacks complexity,” Phillips-Mora says, “but it really hits you in the face with chocolate.”
That big, ethereal blast of chocolate is in danger -- and for the moment, at least, there’s nothing Phillips-Mora can do about it. So many of the world’s most-beloved chocolates, Seguine explains, are a geographic melting pot of different varieties. Just as Bordeaux winemakers mix cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other grapes to fashion their superb reds, so too do chocolate makers blend different cocoas. Cocoa from the Americas, which is often fruity and floral, can be mesmerizing in a bar of single-origin dark chocolate but, Seguine warns, can overpower a cake. An ideal blend, he explains, might feature a base of West African chocolate, with 30 percent of Ecuador’s finest. The result, he says, is a “tremendous depth of flavor.”
In other words, Africa is critical not only to the production of chocolate but also to its quality. And unfortunately, the continent can’t simply be planted over with new CATIE varieties. For one thing, there are diseases in Africa the CATIE trees aren’t designed to resist. More important, Africa has its own distinct cacao varieties, which play an essential role in the continent’s characteristic flavor profiles. If the flavor of African chocolate changes, then so too does the flavor of many of the world’s most-beloved blends.
In fact, they may already be changing. The world’s single largest cocoa-producing country, Ivory Coast, is planting new hybrids called mercedes. Seguine has sampled mercedes beans four times and each time has declared them acidic and dirty. In other words, they reminded him of CCN51.
But there is a light flickering at the end of the Africa tunnel. After decades spent preoccupied with disease resistance, the African cocoa industry is finally starting to take flavor seriously. TCHO Chocolate Co. of Berkeley, California, which set up nine facilities in South America to teach cacao growers how to breed for flavor, opened its first lab in Africa in 2013, in partnership with the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana.
“We now Skype with cocoa farmers to talk about the way chocolate should taste,” says Brad Kintzer, TCHO’s so-called chief chocolate officer.
Kintzer hopes that, in the near future, better-tasting beans will command higher prices, incentivizing quality, not just quantity. For our last sample, Phillips-Mora piles the three CATIE varieties on top of one another, followed by a big chunk of Seguine’s chocolate grown an ocean away, in Ghana.
“Wow,” he says, his eyes focused on some unseen point. The blend starts out superbly fruity and nutty but ends with a deeply satisfying chocolaty finish.
“The combination,” Phillips-Mora says, “produces a total experience.”
It’s a snapshot of a more flavorful future. Costa Rica, which produces less than 1 percent of the world’s cocoa, has lit the way forward. Will Africa, the cornerstone of cocoa, follow? The future of chocolate depends on it.
(Mark Schatzker is a contributing writer for Bloomberg Pursuits. Opinions expressed are his own.)