Chocolate is not going extinct

In the wake of Valentine’s Day earlier this month, I thought I’d say this: No need to panic, people – chocolate is not going extinct. Earlier this year, Business Insider published the horrific headline: Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 yearsThis juicy click-bait flooded Facebook news feeds, and probably sent many people on post-Christmas chocolate-feeding-frenzies  I have to admit, at first glance, that headline sent a chill down my spine and spasms of pre-chocolate-withdrawl pain through my head – even as my conscious mind was forming the words ‘This is bogus!’. I remembered my experiences making chocolate in Ecuador, and what I’ve learned since, and started digging to back up my suspicions. (It didn’t take long, Snopes has already done the work.)

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This is what chocolate (well, cocoa) looks like in it’s ‘natural’ state – right off the tree. The cocoa beans are covered in a slimy, tangy white coating that’s not all that different from a lot of tropical fruits that grow in pods with many seeds and have tangy centers.

Before I go further, I will say that I am a chocolate-addict. Chocolate is a staple in my cupboard. It’s my ‘go-to’ when I need something sweet, or even bitter. A Hershey’s kiss will do if I’m absolutely desperate, but that’s just candy. I want cocoa – as pure as I can get it. Visiting Ecuador again last summer served to whet my appetite for pure cocoa.

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These are what cocoa pods look like in a tree, before they’re ripe. Different varieties will turn different colors. This variety will turn dark yellow when it ripens.

Ecuador is touted as chocolate’s country of origin. Cocoa was first cultivated near the headwaters of the Amazon, and in the past decade some really fine chocolatiers have begun producing fair-trade, pricey chocolate bars – mostly for tourists and export – from cocoa grown on the slopes of the Andes. There are travel agents who will even arrange tours of Ecuador themed around chocolate. Given that I was on a trip with 17 college students, I didn’t expect to have a chance to indulge.

But I was wrong. On the third day of our visit last August, as the students had some free time to explore the cloud-forest of Mindo on their own, I also found myself with a few free hours. There are at least two chocolate makers in Mindo, and I chose to visit the one nearest town.

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Mindo Chocolate Makers is on a hill above the central plaza. Walking up the wood plank steps to their cafe feels like climbing into a treehouse. It was quiet when I walked in, but in the far back section of the cafe sat four of my students with a spread of chocolates to sample in front of them. They beat me to it.

I signed on for a tour of their chocolate making facility. I won’t share too much about that as one of those four students, Katie Stunkard, has already posted a detailed account of it.

But I began to wonder, after my tour, just how sustainable it is to grow chocolate in Ecuador. Just how sustainable is it to grow chocolate anywhere, for that matter? The Business Insider article discusses some work to create a genetic strain of chocolate that is drought resistant, as that’s the big concern, particularly in the world’s largest chocolate producing countries, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. An article published a few years ago examined the potential impact of climate change on cocoa cultivation in these countries. The article concluded that while changing climate will have some impact, there are opportunities to adapt. This is critical to know, for such a major export in these countries.

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Cocoa beans undergoing desiccation on large trays, prior to being roasted.

Granted, in Ecuador, chocolate is not the big economic export most people think it would be. That title belongs to oil. Then bananas. But most people don’t think of Ecuador when they buy gas or grab a bunch of bananas at the supermarket. Good chocolate, on the other hand, in it’s rise to become an international delicacy, is often labeled by it’s country of origin, and Ecuador finds itself on many labels.

So, what is the future of chocolate in Ecuador?

Theobroama cacao is grown on both the east and west slopes of the Andes. It needs some very specific conditions to continue growing: enough shade to protect it from hot tropical sun – especially in it’s first three years, a fairly steady growing temperature, and 60-80 inches of rain throughout the year. The question is, will climate change impact the growing conditions in Ecuador in the same way that it is expected to impact Ghana and the Ivory Coast?

Here’s the good news, unlike Ghana, Ecuador has very wide variations in topography. So, it IS possible for cocoa growing regions to migrate – if there’s enough land for them to migrate to at higher elevations. As temperatures creep up and rainfall patterns shift, places like Mindo (where chocolate is processed, but not grown in large quantities because it’s too cool) may become better for cocoa growing. Warmer temperatures are not exactly a problem, though. Most climate models forecast a 1-2 degree Fahrenheit increase in tropical temperatures over the next few decades. What’s much more difficult to predict is how rainfall patterns will shift. Climate models are notoriously bad at predicting rainfall patterns in regions with complex terrain, such as Ecuador. So, the question is still out on how rainfall patterns might change in Ecuador through the coming century.

However, climate is not the only issue. Massive cocoa cultivation has been long fraught with the controversy that surrounds any prized rainforest product. In most places where cocoa is grown widely – Ghana, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Peru – it’s been blamed for large swaths of clearcutting. Motivated by the potential for big profits, producers have cleared the forest to make room for cocoa. One of the many problems with this is that cocoa trees actually don’t grow as well without the forest. They are so sensitive to sunlight and the balance of soil moisture. Without the forest, a 1-2 degree shift in temperature WILL have an effect on evaporation, and impact on how well cocoa can grow.

Knowing all of this, maybe climate change will prompt growers to move toward more sustainable, socially just, means of producing cocoa. Having avoided the lure of massive cocoa cultivation so far, perhaps Ecuador can provide a model for cocoa growers worldwide, and shift the focus from mass-market sugar-laden cocoa candies to artisan cocoa varieties, locally sourced and produced.

Compared to the possibility (and now reality) of massive droughts forcing migrations of millions of people and destructive tropical storms that can wipe out the infrastructure of an entire country in a day, to think about the impact of climate change on cocoa is a bit of an absurdity.  It’s a luxury item. Even bananas are a luxury item. But maybe I like to think about this because in the face of such horrific calamities, it’s important to hang on to the bits and pieces of our global culture that could get lost as things shift when we’re forced to think about the world in a new way.

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UNCO students sorting cocoa beans in the Amazon, where made our own chocolate sauce from toasted cacao beans.

So, you can relax: chocolate is not going extinct. But given the work that goes into producing it, like oil, and even bananas, you should probably be paying a lot of of money for it.

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