Cocoa industry searches for solutions to production woes

It might not be obvious when you're unwrapping your occasional chocolate bar, but there is trouble facing the cocoa industry. And now a handful of multinational chocolate companies are joining forces to solve the production shortfall, and investing $1 billion to help growers.

Ebola, climate change, labour practices all contribute to problems for the chocolate industry

Although often unnoticed by consumers, chocolate manufacturers face a series of problems that effect the supply of cocoa. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

It might not be obvious when you're unwrapping your occasional chocolate bar, but there is trouble facing the cocoa industry.

And now a group of multinational chocolate companies are joining forces to solve the production shortfall, and investing a billion dollars to help growers.

Cocoa production is declining for a number of reasons. Some blame climate change (a 2011 report from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture predicted some major cocoa-producing regions will become unsuitable for growing the beans within a matter of decades).

In 2014, the Ebola epidemic curbed production in some West African countries, according to Politico. There are also crop failures, and government crackdowns on child labour and slavery — mainstays in the chocolate industry.

Prices spike, possibility of scarcity on the horizon

Through it all, demand is up — particularly in China and India.

As a result, cocoa prices have spiked — jumping 50 per cent, for example, between the beginning of 2013 and mid-2014.

Daniel Terry is the owner of Denman Island Chocolate in B.C. He sources fair trade organic chocolate from a processor in Belgium.

And he says there are legitimate concerns about the future availability of cocoa.

"I wouldn't say there's scarcity right now. There's potential scarcity down the road, as the demand increases and the supply does not increase," he said.

"From the point of view of large companies that are involved in the chocolate business, they definitely have an interest in finding ways to grow more chocolate — sometimes appropriately, sometimes inappropriately."

Chocolate giants invest $1B in solutions

In 2014, 10 of the world's largest chocolate companies joined forces to try to find some of those solutions — at a cost of about a billion dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal

Companies like Hershey, Nestle, Mars and Lindt are focusing on a handful of solutions.

A man holds a cocoa fruit at a plantation in Sierra Leone. A conglomerate of chocolate companies have joined together to invest in solutions to help cocoa growers increase production. (Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty)
They're investing in training, arguing that in some regions, farmers could improve production with the right knowledge.

Mars, for example, has increased yields by teaching grafting techniques — which allow new plant varieties to be attached to existing plants.

That move, though, put the company at odds with Ivory Coast government officials, who worry the practice could spread disease.

In other cases, companies are replanting and replacing aging cocoa plantations that are no longer productive.

And then there are incentives to simply establish more farms — a move Terry says can be problematic.

"There's more production in Southeast Asia, obviously Africa produces a lot, and it's supplanting some areas where there were either forests or people were growing sustenance for themselves," Terry said.

"And I don't really see that as sustainability. It maybe gives us more chocolate to work with, but it doesn't help the people on the ground."

Commitments to end child, forced labour needed

He thinks more sustainable long-term help for people who live in chocolate growing regions is needed. For example, he says, there should be a stronger commitment to ending child labour, human trafficking and slavery in the cocoa industry.

Some major companies — including Mars, Nestle, and Ferrero — have committed to ending slavery by 2020, according to the rights organization Labor Rights Forum.

Terry says companies should do more, and sooner — but there's not enough incentive for them to do so.

"This is an industry, like so many industries, that has become a monetary instrument, that people are looking for the bottom line," he said.

"And any way they can achieve that bottom line, and increase that bottom line, makes them look better."

New hope in Central, South America

Despite all the cards dealt against cocoa in recent years, there is some good news.

Coffee farmers in Central and South America — who are dealing with unprecedented climate change impacts and a disease called coffee rust — are increasingly turning to cocoa.

It grows where coffee won't. And the high price it's fetching has governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador investing in growing their cocoa industries.


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.