Candy Makers Are Desperate to Reverse a Potential "Chocopalypse"

It’s a lot to think about, and you’re probably not going to do so next time you unwrap a candy bar. But half a world away, a farmer is urging his plants to grow more and bigger cocoa pods for an industry that produces one of the most loved food...

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Jan 15 2016, 11:00pm

Foto von sharisberries via Flickr

As any self-respecting seven-year-old knows, you can never have enough chocolate. Candy companies—surprise, surprise—tend to agree. They're facing a world where chocolate demand is at a historic peak, climate change is affecting cocoa-growing conditions, and young cocoa farmers are choosing to move to the city rather than take on the family farm. To get the cocoa they need to deliver chocolate to the masses, they've invested a billion dollars in cocoa farms in top cocoa-producing countries like Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana to boost productivity and stave off the "chocopalypse."

A chocopalypse probably isn't the thing you want to think about as you go into a long weekend, and thankfully it isn't here—there was actually a surplus of cocoa last year. But chocolate prices are up about 40 percent since 2012 while many other commodities are down, according to The Wall Street Journal, and a confluence of factors is making it more difficult to meet demand.

And looking forward, with China and India increasing their chocolate consumption and creating a potential two billion new chocoholics globally, candy producers are going to need more of the stuff. Mars Inc., Hershey's, and Mondelez International, which makes Cadbury and Oreos, have been sending agriculture experts abroad to teach farmers techniques that will enable them to grow more in increasingly difficult growing conditions.

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"They need to change the way they farm," Yaa Amekudzi, the head of Mondelez's sustainability program in Ghana, told The Wall Street Journal. "We don't have the forest cover we had, we don't have the rain our grandfathers had, and the soil isn't as fertile… Young people often leave to seek a better life in the city."

Mondelez will invest $400 million by 2022 in its cocoa sustainability program, which works with farmers and local officials to spread best practices. Hershey's and Mars Inc. have similar programs in which they teach farmers how to space young trees at planting, prune them, and apply fertilizer. There is often a tech element involved, too. Hershey's supplied farmers in Ghana, the world's second-largest cocoa producer, with weather and marketing information by text message, and those who followed the advice produced 46 percent more cocoa.

Photo via Flickr user Christoffer Undisclosed

Photo via Flickr user Christoffer Undisclosed

Mars has also sent agronomists to cocoa-producing countries to teach farmers how to graft a new cocoa plant to an existing underproducing plant. Older plants produce less, and grafting can inject new vigor into an old timer past its peak of 10 to 20 years of age. The farming technique has apparently boosted output on one small test plot in the Ivorian village of Petit Bondoukou to 3,000 kilograms per hectare, which is about six times the average in Côte d'Ivoire, the world's biggest cocoa-grower.

But grafting isn't necessarily a miracle technique. With such impressive results, farmers have requested permission to introduce grafting throughout their farms. Government officials, however, have denied their requests, citing worries that grafted trees could spread disease.

Amidst drought, disease, and changing government policies, as of last September, Ghana's cocoa production fell by 18 percent from the year before. Production is expected to be down again in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana this year, which together produce 60 percent of the world's cocoa, in part thanks to an El Niño that has put Africa into one of its worst droughts in 30 years.

"We need to break this cycle, improve productivity and incomes, and inspire the next generation to become cocoa farmers, "Amekudzi told The Wall Street Journal. "Without the next farming generation, there will be no cocoa."

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That is something we can all agree is worth working to avoid, but there are obstacles along the way. Child labor is common in chocolate-producing countries, and it's on the rise—up nearly 20 percent from 2008 to 2014. While legally banned, the practice endures. Nestlé has a child labor monitoring system to help track where children are working in dangerous tasks, and the company will obtain birth certificates for children, register them for school, and set them up with supplies.

It's a lot to think about, and you're probably not going to do so next time you unwrap a candy bar. But half a world away, a farmer is urging his plants to grow more and bigger cocoa pods for an industry that produces one of the most loved food products we have.