Chocolate imperiled as scientists hunt for braver breed of cacao

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 one million metric tons, according to Mars and Barry Callebaut, 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 one million tons every decade for the foreseeable future. Here, now, as you read these words, the world is running out of chocolate.

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 flavourful 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 flavourful. This emerging supervariety promises the world a steady supply of high-quality chococolate — and perhaps holds the key to how all future food should be grown.

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 C 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 specialising in cacao, believes it’s only a matter of time…..

Chicago Tribune: Read the full article

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