The Bittersweet Truth: Is Chocolate Extinction Possible?

Chocolate is one of the most integral parts of our lives. Most of us have fond memories of eating warm chocolate chip cookies with milk or having a nice cold scoop of chocolate ice-cream on a hot day. Although chocolate wasn’t always a part of American history, today it is one of the most commonly sold luxury goods. However, with this increase in demand came consequences. It is estimated the world’s chocolate supply will not be able to meet the consumer’s demand by as early as 2020, driving chocolate prices sky high. This scares many consumers who have a strong affinity to chocolate. Enji like any other person wants to know if this apocalyptic future is possible. Is there a way to prevent this? What can we do to keep our coveted sweets?

We drove right into this topic with some research and there are three main factors contributing to the endangerment of chocolate.

Cacao Sensitivity

Chocolate is made from the bean of the cacao plant, which has been known to be very sensitive to its environment. Not only are these plants sensitive to their surroundings, but they also have low defenses to disease. The few varieties and species of cacao grown around the world have very little genetic mutations leaving them susceptible to being wiped out by a single virus.

We even witnessed a devastating example of the plant's sensitivity in Costa Rica. During the 1970s chocolate farmers noticed an infection on their cacao beans. The fungus soon spread to the entire island claiming over 96% of their crops, and the industry was never able to recover.

The sensitivity of this plant has farmers on constant vigilance as their crops are always susceptible to foreign infections. Due to modern air travel most, chocolate crops are just one unintentional flight away from exposure to new pathogens. These strenuous circumstances are also taking their toll on farmers as they age, and many of the younger generations leave the family business. Ultimately the supply of chocolate is not enough to keep up with the world’s love for the sweet treat.

Global Warming

Like we said Cacao is extremely sensitive to their environment, so it is no surprise that global warming has caused a decline in chocolate production. The cacao plant typically thrives in warm and moist climates, but recent rises in temperature have contributed to droughts and fewer usable land than previous years. 

The melting ice caps have also risen sea levels and caused more serious flooding to regions that were once considered safe for cacao. The reason climate change is so detrimental to chocolate farms is that most of the world’s chocolate comes from just 20° north and south of the equator, the perfect climate for the beans. Not only does chocolate thrive in a small area, but more than 50% of the world's chocolate comes from two countries in Africa, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Ultimately this comes down to sustainable land that has the cacao’s sensitive climate. It's self-evident that the stress from both climate change and sensitivity will ultimately cause a shortage in chocolate.

Increase in demand

Another factor that doesn’t need much explanation is the increase in chocolate popularity. Chocolate wasn't always that popular and was considered a luxury good due to high prices. However, Mr. Hersey had ambition and made his dream of affordable chocolate a reality. The rest is history. American’s quickly fell in love with his confections and as it became part of our lives, demand increased for the sweet candy. Demand for chocolate has risen by 2% every year with North America and Europe being the biggest consumers. It is estimated that the average American will eat 286 bars of chocolate per year.

Endangered or Extinct?

Although there had been various rumors chocolate will go extinct there is still much debate if this is true. Opinions vary from certain extinction by 2050 to long-term effects in 2020. Whatever the outcome, scientists agree that the cacao is currently facing a serious problem and we have to quickly amend it if we are to save our favorite candy.

Many scientists are working together with companies such as Mars, Hershey, and Nestle to find a solution and prevent the endangerment of chocolate even further. Many ideas have been proposed such as creating a hybrid cacao pod that can withstand various infections and pathogens. Dr. Phillips-Mora created his first batch of hybrid pods that are not only 70% more resilient, but also produce up to 6 times more beans than an ordinary pod.

UC Berkeley geneticist and inventor of CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, oversees collaboration with Mars. CRISPR is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or basically DNA modification technology. Doudna’s graduate students work on producing more resistant crops of cacao as well as producing a plant able to withstand climate change.

While many scientists work on engineering a new plant, others believe that their best chance for survival is to choose an alternate location. The website stated that “Frederico Marangoni, CEO of Swiss luxury chocolate brand Du Rhone Chocolatier, told The Economic Times that all countries which are on the equator belt could potentially produce cacao, but Asian countries are simply not yet accustomed to the idea.” Marangoni has the vision to expand chocolate crops to various cities and countries capable of producing chocolate.

Whatever the fate of chocolate is, we can all help by starting to reduce our impact on the earth. Perhaps is we all can commit to a solution we can save a little bit of our sweet earth.