Environmental Outlook: Saving Chocolate

Environmental Outlook: Saving Chocolate

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and Americans are expected to spend around seven hundred million dollars on chocolate. We consume almost three billion pounds of this sweet treat annually and we’re not alone. The world’s appetite...

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and Americans are expected to spend around seven hundred million dollars on chocolate. We consume almost three billion pounds of this sweet treat annually and we’re not alone. The world’s appetite for chocolate is increasing but the supply is under threat. Plant scientists are working to fortify the embattled cacao tree. Researchers at the USDA say we’re losing thirty to forty percent of the crops a year, due to fungal diseases, climate change and insufficient farming practices. On this month’s Environmental Outlook, Diane and her panel of experts look at what's threatening the world's cocoa supply.


Harold Schmitz

chief science officer of Mars, Inc., co-author of "The Future of Chocolate" in the February 2012 issue of Scientific American.

Robert Peck

senior director of operations of the World Cocoa Foundation

Lyndel Meinhardt

Research Leader, USDA/ARS Sustainable Perennial Crops Lab

Program Highlights

An article in February's [Scientific American](http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-future-of-chocolate) said the world's cocoa supply is under threat. For this month's Environmental Outlook and in time for Valentine's Day, Diane and some chocolate experts look at what is happening to the cacao tree and the environmental and social factors affecting the cacao supply.

The Most Serious Threats

"The single most important threat to cocoa going forward and the tree, theobroma cacao, is that it is essentially undomesticated and the pool of knowledge that we use to improve crops like maize, corn or soy or wheat or other crops...is almost barren compared to these other crops," Schmitz said. At present, there is not a shortage of cocoa, but Schmitz said the problem is more one of "large origins." In the 1980s, Brazil was on its way to becoming the world's leading supplier of cocoa, but the supply there was wiped out almost overnight. Currently, 60 to 70 percent of the world's supply comes from a small West African region, primarily in Ghana. If a similar disease issue or pest issue or climate change issue were to strike that region, Schmitz said, the answer to whether we have enough
chocolate would be very different.

Mapping The Cacao Tree Gene

There has been a global effort toward mapping the genome of the cacao tree. "The genome is like any additional tool. It gives us more background information that we can go back and look at. There's a number of teams around the world that are doing the research but the point is most of the
growing countries are in the developing world. And so they don't have the research or the cutting edge technology that we in the developed nations can actually provide," Meinhardt said. Some of the genome-mapping was done by Mars, who shared the information on the web. It was important to Schmitz to put that information in to the public domain, where the smartest plant scientists in the world could easily access it, he said.

Helping Farmers With Production

Cacao is a crop that requires a lot of labor, Peck said. The World Cocoa Foundation is running programs that help farmers in growing regions, teaching them how to use more tools and techniques to be more productive. "We need to create more educational opportunities in rural Africa through our programs," Peck said. "And in combination with the USDA, we're doing that." Basic literacy, agricultural knowledge, leadership skills and vocational educational opportunities are some of the areas of focus.

Diane Tastes The Testing Kit Chocolate

Diane had the chance to taste some of the chocolate that Schmitz brought in - each tiny piece labeled by country of origin and contained in a small plastic bag. Sounding a bit like a fine wine expert, Schmitz said Ghana is the "heartland of chocolate flavor." He said the taste should include a "rich chocolate base" with some "light bright notes." This kind of chocolate, Schmitz said, commands a price premium because of its complexity of flavor. Diane also tasted Jamaican and Ecuadorian chocolate, and then, the final piece - a foil-wrapped piece of commercial Dove chocolate that combines the blending of the previous three.

You can read the full transcript here.

Please familiarize yourself with our Code of Conduct and Terms of Use before posting your comments.

Our address has changed!

The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.