The bittersweet truth behind rising cocoa prices and declining supply

If we had followed Alain Ducasse’s advice and matured our palates, we would have learned from the dessert specialist and France’s foremost culinary authority that chocolate is not just a bean-to-bar experience. When cooled, it forms a hardened surface like a winter lake on a warm cake. Stir it into a pool of cream and you get ganache, a glossy glaze that underpins the classic devil’s food cake, which draws the lustful gaze of everyone it encounters on its way from the kitchen to the dinner table. For something more dignified than a big slab of (delicious) darkness, the customizable ganache can be flavored with citrus peels or herbs before being hand-rolled into truffle marbles that make fanciful gifts.

Chocolate has yielded recipes and satisfied desires that feel like healing, a gift in process and outcome. This fudgy morsel is so addictive that experts have compared its properties to the brain chemicals of a person in love. But sugar fanatics may soon have to look back nostalgically on their favorite treats as cocoa faces a new heat that appears to threaten global production.

A supply crisis in West Africa has clouded the outlook for cocoa. Prices rose to their highest level in 44 years late last year as widespread rot caused by climate change damaged crops in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Bad weather in both countries, which together produce about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa beans, has devastated land and decimated production.

This devastating outcome was attributed to El Niño – a climate pattern that occurs every three to five years and is caused by the unusual warming of the surface waters of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean – which brought unusually heavy rainfall to the region and then dry heat. According to a recent forecast published by the International Cocoa Organization headquartered in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, where agricultural investment is scarce and rains are lacking, world cocoa bean production will decline by 11% to 4.45 million tons in the current crop year .

Inflation, or more accurately contraction inflation, is looking exceptionally sticky in the candy aisle of the supermarket. With cocoa trading at around $4,000 per tonne, compared to $2,600 per tonne a year ago, giant chocolate manufacturers like Hershey and Mondelez International (owner of Cadbury) have passed these costs on to shoppers. Not only did its profits fall 11.5% year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2023, but its operations were hit so hard that the company had to cut 5% of its workforce. Soon, the world’s largest chocolatier, Barry Callebaut – the Swiss conglomerate responsible for creating the first ‘ruby chocolate’, a pink, fruity variety reminiscent of berries – could lay off 18% of its workforce, or 2,500 people .

Consumers face an unsavory reckoning: What soothes their misfortunes is bitter for the people who produce it. Without farmers, there is no chocolate – no creamy gelato, no molten lava cake, no happiness – and the economy can be punishing for them. Not long ago, a study by the French Development Agency found that farmers in Ivory Coast earn about one dollar a day, which is below the World Bank’s absolute poverty threshold. Lower incomes also contribute to the use of child labor in the fields. Although the multinational Nestlé has designed a comprehensive ‘cocoa plan’ to equip farmers with better agricultural skills to produce high-yielding and disease-resistant plants, manufacturers and restaurateurs are still looking for sustainable and ethical ways to harvest these pods. -shaped gemstones facing multiple existential threats.

Silicon Valley may have the solution. California Cultured, a startup based in Davis, Sacramento, has created the world’s first cell-cultured chocolate bar grown in a low-cost environment without deforestation and exploitation. To make it, scientists isolate individual cells from cocoa plants with the best organoleptic properties, cultivate them in fermentation tanks that mimic rainforest conditions, and grind the roasted versions into chocolate. When added to candies or cookies, the end result tastes almost like the real thing because most of the cocoa flavors come from the way beans are processed.

Practical application is already underway. Last month, Meiji Holdings Co, Japan’s top chocolate and yogurt maker, signed a 10-year commercial partnership with California Cultured, after investing in the US startup in 2021 to boost its Meiji Cocoa Support program aimed at promoting farmers to promote. Even in Asia, cocoa is built on a fragile supply chain, even if it appears to be holding up for now.

We shudder to think how chocolatiers will react to the news that the world’s chocolate supply could dwindle forever and that its resources could one day emerge from a petri dish. But the same approach is already behind the lab-made meat, which is rising from the pages of science fiction novels and making its way into our homes in the near future. Imagine a brilliant vision of a world just beyond the present, where food is plentiful and affordable without taking a toll on Mother Nature. Call it utopian, but also altruism. Such technical acumen and innovation save water, drastically reduce gas emissions and preserve vulnerable species. It is an escape hatch from our own excesses. It’s not about the cow, it’s about the how.

The idea of ​​recreating cocoa in a laboratory is still in the realm of maybe. That said, regardless of the absurdity, technology is forcing us to rethink the food we eat. If we live in a world populated by analogues perfected in a test tube, where is the joy of enjoying something unpredictable in a way that only nature can provide? Like coffee, each chocolate bean has the potential to express enormously varied flavors that reflect both genetics and a particular terroir. Delving into these diverse qualities can create a deeper appreciation for cocoa’s origins and behind-the-scenes activities.

While science has proven that even the simplest indulgence is not immune to the harsh realities of supply and demand dynamics, it has also revealed an important truth about the mind and a tidbit that is so comfortingly familiar: our senses do not work in isolation, but together. Whether you’re in the habit of methodically nibbling the outside of a Mars bar before tackling the caramel, or tackling a Sachertorte with surgical precision, slow down and savor these precious pleasures before they all melt away.

This article first appeared on March 18, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.