Why you should care

Because the world’s most beloved sweet, bar none, has some serious sustainability issues. 

Attention, chocoholics: We’ve got a supply problem.

While reports of the coming cacao-calypse are exaggerated, it’s no overstatement to say that the chocolate industry faces long-term supply issues. To wit: By 2020, there may well not be enough cocoa to address humanity’s cravings. The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) predicts a global shortfall of 50,000 tons this season and — horror! — shortfalls of up to 1 million tons by decade’s end.

Your own predilection for dark chocolate has played a role in this shortfall.

To be sure, the cacao supply is notoriously erratic, with giant surpluses some years and painful deficits others. But the past six years have seen only one year of surplus, but four of deficits — raising industry concerns “that the market may have entered a period of supply deficit,” according to the ICCO.

For this you can blame the sweet-toothed consumer classes emerging in India, China and Brazil. Or the fact that many of the West African farmers who grow 70 percent of the world’s cacao haven’t seen their yields or take-home prices increase.

You might also look within, because your own predilection for dark chocolate has played a role in this shortfall. Cocoa constitutes about 10 percent of milk chocolate; most of the rest is sugar and milk. But cocoa makes up 60 to 90 percent of dark chocolate; that’s one reason it’s more expensive than milk chocolate.

For some time now, the cacao-intensive dark chocolate category has been stealing milk chocolate’s market share. China, in particular, is voracious for the dark stuff. Dark chocolate’s share of the Chinese chocolate market has shot up fivefold since 2008, to 34 percent, according to ConfectioneryNews. In the U.S., dark chocolate gets a smaller share, slightly less than 20 percent, but it’s been on a steady upward trajectory since 2007, when sales jumped 35 percent. We’ve been discriminating against milk chocolate ever since. Last year, for instance, dark chocolate sales rose 9 percent last year, compared with only a 6 percent rise for milk chocolate.

The artisanal chocolate movement partly explains the rise of dark cravings. So does the raft of reports claiming that dark chocolate is healthy. Confectioners keep trying to capitalize on those studies, using them to make adults feel less guilty about chomping sweets. But responsible reporting would highlight that most of the research has focused on dark chocolate’s short-term benefits rather than its long-term ones.

By now, a taste for the dark stuff is widespread. Even the candy megaliths of our time — Mars and Hershey Co. — have made big bets in the dark chocolate sector. Together, they account for 65 percent of all U.S. chocolate sales, according to Euromonitor, and Hershey claims it’s responsible for 40 percent of the dark chocolate sold in America.

The food nerds would recoil, but we’d like to see milk chocolate become elite.

None of this adds up to a potential cacao-strophe, but it does portend more supply deficits and rising consumer prices. Those in the industry say there are several resolutions, and most revolve around sustainable supply chains. The cacao supply fluctuates in part because the regions in which it grows are prone to drought and political instability. And for most smallholders, cacao isn’t a steady income source: They sit on one end of long, inefficient supply chains, dozens of links away from the final buyer, and have little wherewithal to negotiate fair prices — and therefore lower incentive to deliver reliable supplies.

As a result, even big makers are seeking partnerships with small farmer groups in cacao-producing regions like West Africa. Bean buyers like Callebaut, Nestle and Cadbury are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in training cacao farmers, increasing yields and signing advance contracts.

In this, they’ve taken a page from bean-to-bar artisans, many of whom have been working with farmer groups for years. Among them is Springfield, Mo.-based Askinosie Chocolate. It’s got partnerships and profit-sharing agreements with growers in Ecuador, Honduras, Philippines and Tanzania. Farmers earn 10 percent of net profits, which results not only in higher prices than fair trade, but also a stake in the business.

Woman working with cocoa beans

Askinosie Chocolate Farmer in Tanzania

That’s great for the long run, but what about in the short term? The food nerds would recoil, but we’d like to see milk chocolate become elite. Results: less cacao consumption on the one hand, and more joy on the other (at least for our taste buds).

There is some movement to build up milk chocolate’s foodie cred. Artisanal chocolatier Askinosie, for instance, has used milk in one of its best-selling bars for years — though, take note, it’s not cow’s milk but goat millk. (“We tried all kinds of milk, but goat has a sort of caramel note to it,” says founder Shawn Askinosie.) And the brothers Mast, the Williamsburg Wonkas whose beards must been seen to be believed, recently confessed that they’re experimenting with milk versions. Heretofore, Mast Brothers chocolate included only cacao and cane sugar. (A spokesperson says there’s nothing to report yet, but ”soon enough, I think we will be doing a line of milk chocolate.”)

The darker stuff? Nah. It’s mostly for the “gluten-free set,” says Greenwald. “They’re like dark chocolate bars — there are just too many of them.”Even insiders like Kitty Greenwald, who writes the Slow Food Fast column for the Wall Street Journal, might rejoice at a resurgence of milk chocolate. She says her best writing comes from the sweet-toothed girl buried deep within. “That chubster always and only reaches for a bar with 70 percent [cacao] or less. Ideally, 60 percent,” she says.

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