Chocolate. We know it. We love it. Recent health studies even confirm—if they are to be believed—that we can’t live without it.
This presents a problem. Why? Some believe that cocoa, chocolate’s main ingredient, is going to be very hard to come by in the near future.
Take a look at the map above. You’ll notice that the top two cocoa producing countries are Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, both countries in Africa. Africa is actually responsible for about 70% of the planet’s cocoa production. It’s no surprise then that reports of worsening drought conditions in Western Africa are causing a little bit of a scare for chocolate lovers.
How bad is it? While there is no need to start hoarding Hershey bars just yet, the graph below, created from data provided by The Washington Post, paints a disturbing picture of just how bad things could get.
Those projections look pretty grim, but the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) believes these reports are largely exaggerated. In a November 2014 statement they reminded everyone that the past ten years have seen five cocoa production surpluses and five production deficits. They also pointed out that 2014 was actually a production surplus, with Côtre d’Ivoire and Ghana each posting record production. Here is a look at numbers from their site:
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that some of the nastiest diseases that have
been known to attack cocoa plants in Ecuador and other parts of South America i.e. Witches’ broom and Frosty Pod, have not yet hit Africa. However, Mark Guiltinan, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University specializing in cocoa says it’s only a matter of time. When that time comes, a 1 million metric ton deficit by 2020 might not be such an exaggeration after all.
Now, even if Witches’ broom and frosty pod hit Africa, there could be hope for cocoa from a solution found in Ecuador. The recent episode “The Chocolate Curse”, on NPR’s popular show Planet Money explored the story.
The episode opens in Ecuador, and the scene isn’t pretty. Cocoa trees that once boasted bright yellow cocoa pods the size of footballs now produce tiny black pods that shrivel and drop to the ground. Ecuadorian cocoa farmers, who were once wealthy barons known as “Grand Cacaos”, became some of the poorest people in the country.
Then we learn of a lone man in Ecuador who, several years ago, came up with a solution to the nasty disease—a solution that, in the beginning, was a little hard to swallow.
The man was Homero Castro, a diminutive plant biologist with a very big dream. Homero’s dream was to breed a super cocoa plant, a plant resistant to Witches’ broom, capable of growing in tough climates and producing far more cocoa than the healthiest old trees ever could.
Homero spent several years and numerous attempts at cross breeding different cocoa plants that he himself had collected from all over the world. On his fifty-first attempt Homero succeeded, and CCN-51 was born. Named after the initials of the town he was from—Collecion Castro Naranhal—and for how many times it took him to get it right, Homero’s cocoa plant was immune to Witches’ broom and produced ten times more cocoa than the old trees. CCN-51 helped Ecuador surpass Brazil in 2013 as South America’s leading cocoa producing country and has kept them a close second through 2014.
Today CCN-51 is the primary source plant for the world’s cocoa. There’s just one problem. The taste of CCN-51 is acid, described as “dirt” and “rusty nails.” Though these days, especially with the shortage in 2013, chocolate companies are becoming less picky and more accepting of CCN-51 and are starting to buy it and mix it in with the chocolate they are making. To help matters, a simple process—exposing bags of CCN-51 cocoa beans to natural sunlight for three days—all but eliminates the unpleasant taste.
Industry sources tell us that there’s probably a little bit of CCN-51 in just about every chocolate product these days. So, the next time you find yourself savoring the rich, flavonoid-infused goodness of your favorite piece of chocolate, take a moment to thank Homero Castro, a little man with a very big dream, and cross your fingers that his solution holds up in other parts of the world when the need arises.
Would you like to make your own conclusions about the cocoa shortage? Check out the dataset here. Then create a free DataHero account to analyze it.
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