Chocolate under siege

A bee visits a cacao flower. Note how the flower grows directly from the trunk.

Immature pods adorn a cacao tree.

Courtesy of Allen Young, Milwaukee Public Museum.

  Chocolate in peril?
flowerThe candy industry calls it America's favorite flavor, and for many Americans chocolate seems almost as necessary as food itself. Each year, we gnaw, gobble, slurp, lick and savor an average of 11.7 pounds of the tasty stuff.

But there's trouble down at Chocolate Court. The cacao tree, source of cocoa, the raw material of chocolate, is being whacked by fungal diseases. At best, we could see a hike in the price of cocoa. At worst, we could see a shortage of the irreplaceable flavor.

The chocolate industry issues soothing words even as, behind the scenes, it ponders its options. "Chocolate will be there whenever anyone has the urge to enjoy America's favorite flavor," said Susan Smith, senior vice president of public affairs for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. "We won't ever run out of chocolate."

But the association admits that "cocoa bean supply is expected to increase steadily but may not keep pace with demand."

stemThings didn't sound so mellow when The New York Times talked to Jim Gockowski, an agricultural economist (see "Chocoholics Take Note..." in the bibliography): "There are diseases in South America that are threatening to wipe out the industry there, as well as the rest of the world if they spread," said Gockowski, of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Global cocoa reserves have been falling since 1991, and the price of cocoa futures it at its highest in 10 years. At its root, the chocolate shortage is caused by an imbalance between the demand for chocolate and the land available for planting. Traditionally, farmers have fought back against disease by planting trees on new land. Today, little land is available.

Chocolate shake
All this has us Why Filers fretting: When will prices at the all-important vending machines start heading north? (This doesn't sound so bad from the candy makers' point of view, but we chocoholics are starting to think long-term. How long can you keep a Hershey bar in the deep-freeze?)

The most ardent chocoholic would agree that a chocolate shortage would be only slightly less grave than the planetary bake-off called global warming. Yet like global warming, the chocolate crisis may be prevented by ecologically sensitive, or "green," technology.

Since the upcoming chocolate crunch reflects a shortage of disease-free rain forest, some scientists have begun discussing a solution that could preserve vanishing rain forest and the chocolate supply at the same time. Just as reducing the burning of fossil fuels could help avert global warming and reduce acid rain, solving the chocolate crisis could help plants and animals that depend on the rain-forest ecosystem preferred by cacao.

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