Africa Rising: Will Ivory Coast stop feeding the global chocolate habit?

If Ivory Coast's family-owned cocoa farms don't change the way they do farming, they will stop being able to meet the world's hunger – nay, its certified need – for chocolate. That would be bad.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
Workers collect cocoa beans at a warehouse in Agboville, 35 miles from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on September 27.

A third of the earth's cocoa grows on Ivory Coast's family-run farms, before it's trucked out, shipped, traded, and roasted into chocolate. But if the country's planters don't change the way they farm, analysts say Ivory Coast could be the cause of the most bitter shortfall in the history of human sweets: a chocolate deficit.

Minor cocoa deficits happen every few years, whenever the world's cocoa-cultivating countries pluck too little cocoa to satisfy the three million tons craved each year – but no worries. Cocoa buyers satisfy the difference with stockpiles leftover from times of plenty. Blessed with La Niña storms, 2011 could be just such a surplus year.

However, by the end of the decade, the world will demand 1 million more tons of cocoa than it now harvests, Cargill Inc. estimates, citing growth in Asia and Eastern Europe. By 2015, when La Niña's rains taper off, cocoa traders say we may see a structural, long-term, and widening gap between the amount of cocoa we want – and the amount farmers in tropics like Ivory Coast can grow for us.

“Inevitably, it would mean higher prices,” World Crops editor Gary Mead says. “High-end [chocolate] could become a real luxury.”

At the vending machine, low-end chocolate would likely stay on its same price shelf, he adds. Cocoa only accounts for ten percent of the cost of a cheap chocolate bar. Should cocoa become rare, analysts say chocolatiers would simply blend less chocolate into their chocolate bars, padding the treat with bogus fruit fillings and sugar wafers.

Which would be a tragedy. But it's not great news for Ivory Coast, either.

Cocoa is the country's chief export, a cash crop that financed four decades of prosperity and peace in this former French colony. Still, the trees are fickle and seasonal, so Ivory Coast's farmers are increasingly seeding new plants like rubber trees that pay dividends all year long – income that farmers desperately need as Ivory Coast limps out of two decades of civil conflict and economic stagnation.

The country fought two civil wars in the past 10 years, and the cocoa sector suffered hardest. Both wars gave soldiers on each side license to extort the cocoa trade, reducing a once lucrative business into an underworld of meager profits and cocoa smuggling. Without loans or cash to truck in fertilizer, Ivory Coast's farmers have stripped their soil of its nutrients, and left their trees to wither. Most of the country's cocoa trees are old, beyond the 15-year mark when they ought to be retired. The country's 800,000 small-scale farmers are no spring chickens, either.

“Both the trees and the farmers themselves are getting older and older,” says cocoa program manager Daan de Vries with the sustaibility watchdog UTZ Certified. “At some point, that can't last.”

Cargill Inc. is hoping it can. The US company, the largest purchaser of Ivory Coast's cocoa, plans to pay $2.2 million in premiums to farmers that use fertilizer, farm sensibly, and invest in their groves.

“The world will need additional cocoa to meet the growing global demand,” wrote Steven Fairbairn, Cargill's head of external communication, in an e-mail. “We believe sustainable production [improving and increasing yield per hectare] will be essential to help keep pace with this growth.”

The company is also investing in new cocoa farms as far out as Indonesia and Vietnam – or in neighboring Ghana, whose government is so eager to make up for Ivory Coast's plunge that it is handing out free cocoa trees. For all Ghana's zeal, though, analysts doubt the country, three-fourths the size of its western neighbor, can compensate for Ivory Coast's loss.

At least one organization, the International Cocoa Organization, however, forecasts a completely opposite, but equally dire outcome: so many nations will rush into cocoa, that production of the crop will actually soar to 6 million tons, a surplus so fulsome that prices will plummet, impoverishing farmers throughout the tropics.

Mr. De Vries says he doubts that outcome. For him, the equation is simple: The world wants chocolate – more, more, more of it – and our top grower of the crop seems inclined to grow less.

“If you go to villages in rural Africa, whether in Ghana, or Ivory Coast, and you ask a classroom of children, do you want to become a cocoa farmer, no one will stick up their hands,” he said. “Clearly, this isn't viable for the future.”

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