STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Chocolate makers said today they are contributing several hundred-thousand dollars to fight Ebola in West Africa. The companies include Nestle and Hershey's. They say they want to protect the world's largest suppliers of cocoa, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Now to be clear, Ebola has not crossed over to those cocoa-producing countries, and yet Ebola has already affected the price of a chocolate bar even here in the United States. NPR's Gregory Warner has been asking why.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, Jack Scoville was buying himself a chocolate bar - Hershey's milk, at a corner store in Chicago, and he noticed that the price was just a little bit higher, about five or 10 cents. His first thought was not to blame a greedy store owner or even the executives in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Scoville was blaming the West African Ebola virus.
JACK SCOVILLE: Sure, it's occurred to me. I don't know that the average guy on the street would.
WARNER: But Scoville is not your average chocolate eater. He's a senior market analyst at Price Futures Group looking at the cocoa commodities market and last month cocoa contracts; that is the price that, for instance, chocolate makers agree to pay for raw cocoa, spiked in large part on Ebola fears.
SCOVILLE: The price made the move to three-year highs in response to the Ebola crisis and fears that it could spread into Ivory Coast and Ghana.
WARNER: Ivory Coast and Ghana together produce more than half the world's cocoa, and they're just next-door to Ebola-affected countries Liberia and Guinea. Now, everyone I've interviewed for this story wants me to remind you that you cannot get Ebola from chocolate. The fear rather was that if Ebola jumped over the border to Ivory Coast, those cocoa farmers would scatter, the cocoa fruits - it's the seeds of the fruit that we call the cocoa bean - would stay unpicked, and Halloween would become as expensive as Christmas.
SCOVILLE: That would be the fear.
WARNER: Or that was the fear until the end of September, when this fear, as with so many that seem to petrified the markets, suddenly vanished. The price eased back, maybe because enough weeks had passed and Ebola hadn't jumped the border or because Ivory Coast reassuringly locked down its land borders allowing almost no human traffic from Ebola affected countries.
SCOVILLE: The market feels like we've dodged a bullet.
WARNER: But if you leave aside the markets and consider what is now happening on those cocoa farms as a result of those sealed borders, most of the workers that harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast are migrant workers from Liberia and Guinea who now can't cross the border to pick that cocoa.
GEORGE EDWARD: Well, we are at the critical phase of the season at the moment because the season starts at the beginning of October.
WARNER: George Edward is head of group research for Ecobank; it's a pan-African bank.
EDWARD: And if Cote d'Ivoire's agriculture sector loses all of its laborers, that will have a huge impact in terms of the crop and what can actually be harvested.
WARNER: Ecobank researchers predict that farms will procure pod-pickers from elsewhere, but they cannot be sure how the season will go. And the reason that they're not sure is also a second-order impact of Ebola. See, usually at this time, you'd have swarms of agronomists sent by chocolate companies into West Africa to literally count trees and pods on the trees and use mathematical modeling to predict, to great accuracy, the world supply of cocoa this year. But because of Ebola, many of those pod-counters never boarded the plane, even to Ebola-free Ivory Coast and Ghana.
EDWARD: Without having the agronomists there now, a lot of the trips have been canceled. They just don't want to send the Europeans to the region, even in areas that are not infected with Ebola. That means this information is not coming in. So this entire cocoa season, we could be walking in the dark.
WARNER: So let me ask my most important question. Should I stock up on, you know, 200 chocolate bars just in case?
EDWARD: Yes, actually. Well, it doesn't necessarily keep that well, so I don't know - unless you're going to eat 200 chocolate bars in a couple of months.
WARNER: To put this in perspective, though, if cocoa prices do spike, it means people will eat less chocolate. When migrant workers aren't able to reach the fields and send those wages home because the borders are locked down, that means some families won't eat at all. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
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