Chocoholics of the world, unite!

“I could give up chocolate but I’m not a quitter” – a bon mot that may have to be revisited in the face of escalating cocoa bean prices.During the past two years the price of cocoa has escalated by 50%, prompting some of the world’s biggest confectionery companies to warn of a worldwide chocolate shortage by 2020. That could mean that chocolate, like the white truffle from Italy’s Piedmont region, will be sold by the flake.

Poor working conditions and lousy prices in the cocoa-growing regions of West Africa have adversely affected the chocolate industry. Ghana and Ivory Coast alone supply 60% of the world’s cocoa, but workers only manage to scratch a living on small farms, where land disputes and cocoa trees past their prime have weakened production. There are also rumours of child labour.

The International Labor Rights Forum estimates that up to 1.5 million children work in the industry because low wages deter adults from taking jobs in cocoa farming. Not surprisingly most of these children working in what is a multi-billion dollar industry have never tasted a square of chocolate – let alone a hand-made Belgian praline.

ChocoholicsIn contrast, the growing middle classes of China, India, and Brazil are acquiring an unhealthy taste for it. These countries are seeing double-digit annual growth in chocolate sales, although consumption is still far lower than in the chocolate-box heartland of Europe (Switzerland is still the biggest consumer) or in North America, where Hershey remains the single largest chocolate manufacturer.

Soaring demand at a time of faltering supply is forcing up prices. Cocoa now sells on world markets at around $2,700 a tonne, having risen sharply after decades of low prices. But the profits are not being passed on to local farmers in the form of better wages.

Major chocolate companies, including Nestlé and Callebaut (which produces chocolate with a high cocoa butter content used by culinary professionals and processes almost a quarter of the world’s cocoa beans), all claim to have invested money in sustainability programmes designed to support smallholder cocoa farmers. However, this is not likely to be enough to stop poverty-stricken farmers switching to more lucrative crops like palm oil or rubber.

Could there ever be a world without chocolate? Probably not, but you may need to be rich. As Charles M. Schulz once wrote, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt” – if you can afford it.

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