Can Technology Save Chocolate?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Empty chocolate wrappers

If you haven’t already heard, the world is facing a chocolate shortage. Part of the reason is increased demand, as Chinese taste buds awaken to the delicious treat. But part of the reason is climate change.

Cacao is a fickle plant. The trees grow in shady areas of rainforests within 20 degrees of the Equator. They require just the right water, soil, temperature and tending. It takes at least 5 years for them to produce fruit.

More than half the world’s chocolate is grown in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, but climate conditions there are changing, explains a study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Analysts are predicting “the longest streak of consecutive chocolate deficits in more than 50 years.”

So what can be done?

According to Mother Jones Magazine, farmers are investing in a high-yield cacao hybrid (not genetically modified) that was created in Ecuador in the 1970’s by a cacao breeder named Homero Castro. Known as CCN-51, it doesn’t require shade early in life and is tolerant to disease and a greater variety of climates. Unfortunately it doesn’t taste very good, and has been described by top chocolate connoisseurs as “acidic dirt.”

According to the magazine, however, there are some high-yield disease-resistant plants that taste really good.

“These cacao strains, called R-1, R-4, and R-6, have one significant improvement over CCN51: They taste really good. In 2009, beans of two of the strains, R-4 and R-6, were entered into the International Cocoa Awards at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. Both won prizes—R-4 for its ‘sweet, floral, and fruity notes,’ and R-6 for its ‘nutty and woody notes, with undertones of brown fruit.’”

But is that the solution? Decreasing the biodiversity of chocolate to maintain supply? According to choco-ficionados, there are least 10 different varieties and 40 different cultivars of the cacao plant, possibly more. Humanity deserves to taste them all.

A recent article in points to an alternative solution. It describes big data apps that can help farmers deal with climate change.

“Just a couple degrees difference changes when insects will hatch, or when diseases will break out,” said Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s CTO. “So that puts a real premium on modeling microclimatic conditions, so you can become predictive on not only which field, but which part of a field should someone be looking at.”

With big data, farmers could know when and where to plant to maximize their yield. They also could know about changing climactic conditions in real-time, finding out that a spot several kilometers to the north is now hospitable to a certain strain of cacao tree.

And if cacao growers are wary of sharing their data with GMO giant Monsanto, there are smaller startups providing big data to small farmers.

For instance, 640Labs collects data from farms and provides actionable insights to farmers, including in Africa.

Some popular chocolate stocks which could be affected by this are Hershey (NYSE:HSY), Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory Inc. (NASDAQ:RMCF),  Nestle (OTCPK:NSRGY), Lindt & Sprungli AG (OTCPK:LDSVF), Barry Callebaut (OTC:BYCBF), Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. (NYSE:TR), and Cadbury plc (OTC:CDSCY), a subsidiary of Mondelēz International (NASDAQ:MDLZ).

So can technology save chocolate? Hard to say but how sweet it would be.

Disclosure: None.

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