The 'chocolate crisis' and what companies are doing about it

Chocolate bars are seen on a store shelf. (Quartz)Chocolate bars are seen on a store shelf. (Quartz)
Chocolate is in crisis, and that’s a big problem for some major companies. (Quartz)

If you haven’t heard, chocolate may be extinct by 2050, according to findings from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve been alerted there could be serious chocolate shortage, but the recent news that cacao plants (the plants that produce cocoa which is then made into chocolate) could go by the wayside in less than 35 years is a stark realization that’s not being taken likely.

In fact Mars Inc., the company behind treats like Snickers and M&Ms, teamed up with researchers from the University of California Berkley to start to remedy the situation using gene-editing technology. The partnership, which sees Mars investing around $1 billion in its application, aims to save the future of cacao crops by using CRISPR technology. These “molecular scissors” are used to remove and replace (essentially “tweak”) strands of DNA, and although this method is used to help treat genetic diseases, scientists are confident it could be a way to tackle crops just the same, helping strengthen them so they can withstand the dryer, warmer climate, thus keeping us from a “chocapocalypse” as it’s been dubbed.

“We’re trying to go all in here,” said Mars’s chief sustainability officer, Barry Parkin, to Business Insider. “There are obviously commitments the world is leaning into but, frankly, we don’t think we’re getting there fast enough collectively.”

The NOAA’s report says the current generation of cacao plants will not be affected, but rather, the next generation so the time to act is now. According to research from Mintel, provided to Yahoo Canada Finance, chocolate confectionary sales will hit US$20.7 billion by 2020. The International Cocoa Organization reported that cocoa butter’s price more than doubled between 2005 and 2015, and cost has been predicted to rise by 30 per cent by 2020. However, while prices may be predicted to rise, the reality as of late is cocoa prices are falling following a six-year high, farmers are being cut out and crops are being wasted.

Doug Hawkins, from London-based research firm, Hardman Agribusiness, told the Daily Mail that … “more than 90 per cent of the global cocoa crop is produced by smallholders on subsistence farms with unimproved planting material.” This, according to Hawkins, is an indicator that “we could be looking at a chocolate deficit of 100,000 tonnes a year in the next few years.”

Who’s fixing the problem

Back in 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with 17 other companies, funded a $40-million program (the Cocoa Livelihoods Program) for the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF).  The initiative was set in place to help improve practices and lives of cacao farmers in numerous West Africa and Central African countries. Reports suggest the program trained nearly 200,000 farmers, helping to improve quality of product, conditions and efficiency.

Then there are cacao breeders, who have been sought out thanks to Mars Inc. and the ARS (Agricultural Research Service), and can be found in places like Latin America and Asia, in addition to West Africa. Ensuring there are more breeders employing sustainable methods, while physically being able to monitor crops and see if cultivars may be carrying disease-ridden traits, could prevent wasted, dying crop.

Hershey Co. has tapped into programs like Cocoa Futures, and also recently forked out nearly $1.6 billion in order to acquire SkinnyPop’s parent, Amplify Snack Brands. The company also acquired Krave Pure Foods in 2015 and then barkTHINS in 2016, the latter posited as a healthier version of chocolate snacks. A shortage in cocoa production, however, could be detrimental to current and future mergers, and the World Cocoa Foundation reports that cacao employs up to 50 million people worldwide.

How – and where – it can be fixed

One environmental option suggested to help improve crop growth is to move the crops up the mountains–as in 1,000 feet uphill–in order to receive fairer conditions, but this risks threatening local wildlife, says the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Another option is to move, expand or utilize production elsewhere, like Indonesia, which is another of the world’s biggest cocoa producers. The Brazilian method of cabruca, which sees additional trees planted to provide shade for cacao trees, is another practice that could prove to be useful moving forward.

Alternatives to chocolate could also be an avenue to invest more in. Wild mango butter, for example, is said to have similar properties to cocoa butter and could act as a replacement. Carob powder, which has been used for thousands of years, is a source often touted to be better than cocoa powder, offering its own host of health benefits (mainly that it doesn’t contain caffeine or theobromine).

Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana may be the two most highly populated sources for the cacao plant, but with crop failure and ongoing demand for cocoa production, the output could continue to deplete.

Whether you believe climate change affects cacao plants or not, even thinking about a life full of modified chocolate products (or worse yet, no chocolate!), is enough to get hearts racing, maybe just enough to start some serious environmental and economical changes.

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