We’re eating all the world’s chocolate and now we need science to save us

There are cracks in the chocolate supply chain.
There are cracks in the chocolate supply chain.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
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Chocolate is getting more expensive, thanks to growing demand (especially in China) combined with a number of factors that are putting crops at risk—thanks, frosty pod, climate change (pdf), and ebola.

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Making chocolate first requires cacao, a labor-intensive crop—the beans grow in large pods that have to be harvested by hand and then fermented to make cocoa, and it can take two years to get fruit from a seedling.

But cacao producers—and scientists—are working on ways to harvest more so that the growing demand can be met, with new forms of cacao that are more resistant to drought and disease, for example.

In northern Haiti there are about 600 cacao “supertrees,” which produce 20 times as many cacao pods as normal trees. Experts say the resulting cocoa tastes “sweetly seductive rather than bitter, even in its natural form,” according to NPR, which could help small-scale Haitian farms compete with major West African and South American cacao suppliers.

In Ecuador, the cacao tree CCN51 was bred about 50 years ago, and it can yield about four times (paywall) the average cacao tree. High-end chocolate manufacturers claim it is substandard, contributing a sour, acidic taste, but a number of companies have begun using the beans for cocoa butter.

With the aim of developing improvements in both yield and taste, a Central American agricultural research group has developed a set of trees called R-1, R-4, and R-6. They yield about seven times the average, and on top of that, the beans have produced award-winning chocolate.

Bloomberg’s Mark Schatzker traveled to Costa Rica to try the resulting chocolates, and this is how he describes them:

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. …[R-6 is]… 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.

All this innovation helps, but the bulk of it is happening outside of Africa, which accounts for more than 70% of cocoa production. And so, as Bloomberg notes, by 2020 there still could be a 1 million metric-ton difference between how much cocoa the world wants, and how much it gets.