Chocolate prices soar as climate change hurts cocoa production : Short Wave Chocolate may never be the same. The majority of chocolate is made in just two countries and erratic weather from climate change is decreasing cocoa production. A handful of extreme weather events—from drought to heavy rainfall—could have lasting effects on the chocolate industry. Yasmin Tayag, a food, health and science writer at The Atlantic, talks to host Emily Kwong about the cocoa shortage: What's causing it, how it's linked to poor farming conditions and potential solutions. Plus, they enjoy a chocolate alternative taste test.

Read Yasmin's full article.

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Why a changing climate might mean less chocolate in the future

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.

Chocolate is not a topic of deep scientific inquiry, or is it?


KWONG: OK. This is melting in a completely different way.

I have a confession to make. I keep an emergency chocolate stash in my pantry at all times. I eat it like it's my job. But I met someone recently for whom chocolate is her job. Yasmin Tayag is a food, health and science writer for The Atlantic. And last week, she led me in a chocolate taste test.

YASMIN TAYAG: It tastes like a chocolate pastry.

KWONG: I wonder if that's the oats.

Because Yasmin recently wrote about how the chocolate industry is changing. Before her reporting, she called herself a fan of cheap chocolate.

TAYAG: One of my guiltiest pleasures is the Cadbury Creme Egg. And it's just pure sweetness. It makes me feel like a 5-year-old kid hyped up on sugar at Easter time (laughter).

KWONG: But for this taste test, Yasmin wanted me to try something from a Germany-based company called Planet A Foods. Their product - ChoViva.

TAYAG: Their chocolate is notable because it contains no cocoa.

KWONG: The product is made mostly from oats.

TAYAG: The color looks a little darker than a typical milk chocolate bar to me.

KWONG: And it tasted yummy. We really liked the alt chocolate peanut butter cups in particular.

It's giving, honestly, the flavors of my childhood.

TAYAG: If you didn't tell me this wasn't chocolate, I would have no idea.


KWONG: Yasmin has been keeping eyes on the evolving chocolate industry for a while. Retail prices for chocolate are soaring as yearly harvests of cocoa are dipping. And when she noticed the price of cocoa was on par with the price of copper, she had to write a story.

TAYAG: Especially as I realized that it was going to have such a - potentially have such a huge impact on the chocolate that I eat all the time.

KWONG: So today on the show, big changes are ahead in the chocolate industry. We get into the science of cocoa trees, the struggles that farmers face in a changing climate and what consumers can expect from bean to bar. I'm Emily Kwong. And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: OK. Yasmin, I learned a lot from your article about chocolate, the state of the chocolate industry and the fact that there's an actual definition of what can be deemed chocolate. This is an FDA standard. What is it?

TAYAG: Yes. According to the FDA, chocolate has to contain at minimum 10% cocoa.

KWONG: And if it's not, it doesn't get to be the big C, the chocolate. OK.

TAYAG: It doesn't get to be the big C, but it can be chocolate-flavored or...


TAYAG: ...You know, chocolate-like.

KWONG: Got it. Well, let's back up to chocolate itself and where it comes from. It comes from a plant. Tell me about these trees and where they grow.

TAYAG: Let me preface this by saying cocoa trees are known to be very finicky, very fussy plants. They like things to be just so.


TAYAG: And so one of their most important characteristics is they only grow within about 20 degrees north and south of the equator. That's not a lot of area. The trees like this region because they have very specific requirements for heat and moisture. They're kind of tall, you know, at least taller than a basketball net, sometimes much taller. They tend to have a sort of rounded, squat appearance because of the way their branches grow. They've got really beautiful dark green, glossy leaves. And hanging from the branches are these pods. To me, they look like deflated footballs.

KWONG: (Laughter).

TAYAG: They're kind of elongated, a little wrinkly. They can be football-colored or sometimes brighter colors like red or orange or yellow or even purple. And it's inside these pods that we get the cocoa bean. What you see instead of, like, brown beans are - they look like white fruit, kind of like lychees.

KWONG: OK. How big are they?

TAYAG: About date-sized.


TAYAG: They're kind of fluffy. So this is the pulp surrounding the cocoa bean. And that has to be removed before, you know, the processing can begin.

KWONG: What is the process? What are some of the major steps?

TAYAG: As I learned, it's so complicated to get...

KWONG: (Laughter).

TAYAG: ...From fruit to chocolate bar. Yeah, like, the final...

KWONG: So the first step of the product is nothing like the fruit in so...


KWONG: ...Many ways.

TAYAG: Not at all. So first step - remove the bean from the fruit. Then the beans are fermented. And what fermentation does is it helps the flavor develop and gets rid of any bitter tastes.

KWONG: OK. So, like, the flavor of chocolate is really coming from this fermentation process.

TAYAG: That's the first step. There's so much more.


TAYAG: So for - after fermentation, then you dry the beans. Then they are roasted. So much like coffee beans, these raw beans get most of their flavor from the way they're roasted, the temperature at which they're roasted and for how long.


TAYAG: But it has this husk on it that you don't want. So the bean is split open, and that husk is removed. And what you're left with is the cocoa nib. This cocoa nib is the edible part. This is later ground down to release cocoa mass, like cocoa solids plus cocoa butter, which is the fat that comes out of this. This stage and later, you might start adding milk and sugar and other flavoring agents. More refining, then tempering happens, which is the process of, like, heating and cooling chocolate so that we get the snap that we want and that...

KWONG: Yeah.

TAYAG: ...Glossy coating on it. And then finally, you can turn that into something like a bar.

KWONG: Right.

TAYAG: Or a chocolate shelf or...

KWONG: (Laughter).

TAYAG: ...An egg (laughter).

KWONG: OK. You know, one of the big takeaways from your article is that climate change is coming for chocolate. It is already impacting the chocolate industry right now. What does that look like?

TAYAG: So many things are happening. But the big thing, I would say, is that the weather is becoming really erratic where chocolate is supposed to grow. Most of the world's chocolate comes from two countries in West Africa. That is Ivory Coast and Ghana. So when the weather there gets weird, that really affects the entire global supply.

And so what we've been seeing lately is heavier-than-usual rainfall. And what this did last year was create the conditions for a fungus to spread that causes something called black pod disease. You'll see little blotches appear on the cocoa pods as they're on the trees, and slowly they'll just turn black. They'll rot on the plant - fall off.

KWONG: Yeah.

TAYAG: That tanks production. And then earlier this year, you had drier-than-usual conditions. It sucked all the moisture out of these plantations that the trees require, and production started to dip. So all of this is happening as another really severe virus is decimating cocoa, and this is called swollen shoot virus. It causes these bulges on the trees and ultimately kills them over time. And what's really devastating about this particular disease is that once it's on a plantation, it spreads rapidly. It can cross into other people's plantations, and the only way to get rid of it is to uproot all the trees and start fresh.

KWONG: This just sounds untenable for any chocolate farmer.

TAYAG: Totally. Another way that climate change could change chocolate as we know it is that it might change the flavor of the beans. So the cocoa plants are very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature. And, you know, as the climate becomes more erratic, this could result in inconsistent flavors coming out in the cocoa beans themselves. And the way the cocoa industry might deal with this is by roasting the beans to a really high temperature to sort of eliminate all discrepancies. But it might also get rid of a lot of the complexity in the beans, resulting in maybe more-boring, less-interesting chocolate.

KWONG: So you were saying earlier that most of the world's chocolate supply comes from just two countries - Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. And you say in your article that in Ghana, the average cocoa farmer is close to 50 years old and that a new generation of farmers there is needed to maintain the cocoa supply, but young people may just walk away from the industry. What other issues do cocoa farmers in this region face beyond climate and beyond an aging workforce?

TAYAG: Yeah. I mean, the biggest thing is they're paid so little for what they do, in part because the prices for cocoa that they earn, they don't totally reflect the market. They're set by the governments of those countries at the beginning of the growing season. You know, they don't have money to buy, you know, pesticides. They aren't able to invest in irrigation. It is a really bad industry to be in. Somebody's got to pick these pods, and unfortunately, it's often children, people under 15 years old. Sometimes farmers, you know, out of desperation, because they're not getting enough money for their crop, lease out land for illegal gold mining. For the farmer, it is a way to make a little bit more money just to get by.

KWONG: Meanwhile, you say in your piece that demand for chocolate is rising.


KWONG: So how are you squaring this reality with that?

TAYAG: The way things stand right now, there isn't going to be enough chocolate. But there are a couple of things that could change, potentially. I think a big thing is that the cocoa-growing regions could expand out of West Africa into other parts of the world along the equator. Chocolate makers might end up using less cocoa.


TAYAG: Or, you know, what the hope is for people who are still feeling a little more optimistic about the cocoa industry is that the big chocolate makers like Hershey's and Cadbury will finally realize that they have to invest in these small farms if they want to keep up the supply that they've had for this long. And that would mean, you know, paying them a living wage. But none of that is guaranteed. And for now, there is no real way to square the growing demand with the decreased supply.

KWONG: Yeah. And your piece highlights some statistics from this Reuters article that I want to share that the International Cocoa Organization expects global cocoa production to fall by nearly 11% this season. And then according to a market research firm named Circana, U.S. retail stores charged over 11% more for chocolate products last year versus 2022. So given all this, what do you think consumers are going to see from chocolate?

TAYAG: I think we're already starting to see it. You know...

KWONG: Yeah.

TAYAG: ...Chocolate prices are rising, and chocolate is getting smaller, or at least, like, the package sizes are getting smaller. The chocolate companies have to make up the cost somehow if...

KWONG: Right.

TAYAG: ...Cocoa is really costing that much more. And so maybe more peanut butter cups with a lot of peanut butter and less chocolate or, like, chocolate bars with so many almonds and fruits in them.

KWONG: Or maybe you try out some alternative chocolates.

TAYAG: Yeah. The alternative chocolate space is interesting. It's kind of like the fake meat of chocolate.


TAYAG: I think for those of us who've had the privilege of eating chocolate like this our whole lives, you know, it really makes you ask what made this kind of chocolate so ubiquitous in the first place.


KWONG: Yasmin Tayag is a reporter for The Atlantic. Thank you so much for talking to us.

TAYAG: Thanks so much for having me.

KWONG: You can find a link to Yasmin's article in our episode notes. This episode was produced and fact-checked by Berly McCoy and edited by our showrunner, Rebecca Ramirez. Ko Takasugi-Czernowin was the audio engineer. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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