There have been murmurings of an impending chocolate crisis for some months now but the major press seemed to pick it up this week. As I stood in the airport ready to fly to Milan on Monday I was called by the BBC to see if I could come on BBC Worldwide that evening to discuss the chocolate shortage. Sadly there were no suitable studios in Milan so I had to pass but my brain kept ticking. It’s a topic I’m extremely passionate (read: opinionated) about.
I’m still in Milan but given that I’m here on behalf of the tourism board promoting Milan Expo 2015 (www.wonderfulexpo2015.info) it seems fitting alongside the Expo’s theme of Food and specifically “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” to start this sustainability conversation with chocolate.
Cocoa prices are rising again. In real terms (i.e. accounting for inflation) they’re not the highest they’ve ever been, but they are high. Economics 101 should tell us that prices rise when demand increases or supply decreases. In the case of chocolate (or cocoa, its main, crucial component) we’re seeing both simultaneously.
Countries that have always been big consumers of chocolate are eating more than ever. In the UK we’re now responsible for the largest consumption in Europe. And now the nations that were previously only mildly interested in chocolate are taking to it with the same gusto as the rest of us. Undoubtedly this was instigated by the major confectionery manufacturers and their masterful marketing attempt to extend their reach and boost their revenue. Their success is now our concern.
A lesser contributor to this looming dearth is the “fine chocolate industry” which is gently nudging consumers towards higher percentage cocoa chocolate bars. The more cocoa in the bar the greater the demand amongst the manufacturers for the ingredient, ergo the price goes up. The fine chocolate industry, however, pays cocoa growers between three and ten times the price that they would make by selling their cocoa – via convoluted channels – through the commodities exchange. Not to mention paying them as directly as possible avoids middlemen taking an unnecessary cut.
Most of the world’s cocoa (close to 70%) comes from two main producing countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana. Both have suffered from drought this year and the proximity of Ebola to these and other cocoa producing countries has also caused panic in the markets which always base their price on future expectations of demand and supply rather than the current conditions. Right now there are warehouses of cocoa beans that will last the world a few years still, even at our current rate of consumption. Unfortunately the trend is to a dwindling production which will, quite literally, eat into those reserves.
The main problem is that actually the price of cocoa is NOT high enough. How can we expect farmers to keep growing cocoa when they can replace it with a crop that is easier to grow, more resistant to disease and pays more than double per hectare than they’re making from cocoa. At the recent Academy of Chocolate Conference the topic was “What price cocoa?”. Corn and rubber can yield a farmer a more financially rewarding life, even if in some cases this is short-termist. Farmers who remove their cocoa trees cannot easily change their minds. It takes 3-5 years from planting a seedling to yield fruit to harvest beans to sell. This is why we might see cocoa become as rare and expensive as caviar. We see each year that at least one of the popular chocolate confectionery lines has shrunk or maybe nudged the price up and the online community goes into uproar. How dare inflation touch our precious treat? Most people can’t comprehend the idea of paying £5 for 100g chocolate bar. Which astounds me when I see the same people buying the house wine – which is invariably quite ordinary – for the same price and finishing it in thirty minutes. Never mind the cost of cigarettes or a daily Starbucks habit. A 100g bar of 70% fine quality chocolate is hard to consume in one evening unless you’re chomping it mindlessly, and even then I’d be surprised.
If we’re making an effort to move consumption away from cheap fashion then we should be doing the same for cheap chocolate. The “us and them” mentality needs to stop. Yes, it’s cheaper to live in most cocoa-growing countries, but $1/day per family (and this is what some cocoa farmers earn) is well below the poverty line. We must start paying all cocoa farmers more.
If you want to ensure that there will be cocoa in the future then we all need to accept that it must cost more, but at least choose something that you will get more pleasure from each bite. If you think you don’t like dark chocolate I can almost guarantee you’ve just not tried one of the good ones. I’ve shown thousands of people on chocolate tours in the past ten years and at least a third of them have told me at the beginning they don’t like dark chocolate. By their first taste 99 of every 100 show surprise and have changed their mind. But if you’re the “one” then try some dark milk chocolates, look for percentages between 40 (not strictly dark milk) and 60%. Less sugar and more flavour. The more cocoa in a bar the less your body craves to eat more. And start asking about whether the chocolate manufacturer buys their cocoa direct and what price they pay.
To start you off, here are a list of some brands that I would recommend:
Grenada Chocolate Company (made in country and £1.35 – about 20-30% – of every bar goes to the growers, versus around 2p – about 2-3% – for every bar of Dairy Milk)
Willie’s Cacao (made in Devon and available in Waitrose)
Duffy’s (made in North Lincolnshire)
In fact, any of the bars sold on www.CocoaRunners.com and if you use the code ecstasy1 for a box or ecstasy2 for a subscription you will get a £3 or £5 discount.
May we all continue eating chocolate for many years to come.