RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We are getting closer to Easter, and that means supermarket aisles are full of chocolate. But while the world appetite for chocolate is growing, there may be a shortage in our future. Here's why. Every year cocoa diseases ruin more than a third of the crop. NPR's Ari Shapiro visited a place that is key to the future of the chocolate industry. We're not talking about Ghana or Brazil. It's in the rolling British countryside.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We have just stepped out of a late winter day in England into a swampy, humid - it feels like we could be in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa.
HEATHER LAKE: It's all right this time of year. It gets a bit hot later on in the summer.
SHAPIRO: Heather Lake is a greenhouse technician fiddling with a tray of seedlings - delicate, spindly, baby coca plants. Since she started working here, she says eating chocolate doesn't feel the same.
LAKE: You certainly know all the work that goes into producing that chocolate bar and all the potential threats that could be there in the future.
SHAPIRO: This International Cocoa Quarantine Center is designed to address those potential threats. A big chunk of the funding comes from America - the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This facility is part of the University of Reading, about 40 miles west of London. And the ruler of this little tropical kingdom is a cocoa researcher named Andrew Daymond.
ANDREW DAYMOND: We've got about 400 different varieties here.
SHAPIRO: Do you have a favorite?
DAYMOND: So there are one or two varieties that have quite interesting-shaped pods on them. This one here, for example, has got a particularly large pod.
SHAPIRO: Oh, that is huge. It looks like a melon or a papaya.
DAYMOND: Yeah, that's right.
SHAPIRO: The pods stick out of the tree trunk like something out of Dr. Seuss. Inside the pods are beans which are ground cocoa. Every plant in these greenhouses has some kind of special power - one might be resistant to fungus, another might produce lots of fruit. Cocoa producers all over the world want these plants. They need them. But there are those potential threats.
DAYMOND: A disease called witches broom disease...
...Which is called frosty pod rot...
...There's a disease called black pod...
...A disease called cocoa swollen shoot virus...
...Disease called vascular streak die-back...
...Miridaes, cocoa pod borer...
SHAPIRO: You get the idea. A few years ago one of these cocoa diseases hit Brazil. Laurent Pipitone is with the International Cocoa Organization in London.
LAURENT PIPITONE: Brazil was one of the largest coca producing countries, and when this new disease came it reduced their production by about half of their production at the time.
SHAPIRO: That's right. This one disease cut Brazil's cocoa supply in half. For a while, it looked like there might not be enough cocoa to feed the world's hunger for chocolate. And global demand today is growing fast, says Bill Guyton. He's president of the World Cocoa Foundation in Washington, D.C.
BILL GUYTON: There is a concern in the future that we may not have enough supply if we don't improve the productivity on the existing farms.
SHAPIRO: So all over the world, cocoa researchers are scrambling to come up with more productive, more disease-resistant plants. But one of those super plants might carry a devastating bug. So every cocoa tree that travels the world starts with a vacation here in the British countryside.
DAYMOND: We have to check the plants very carefully during the first few days that they're here to make sure we've not imported any insects.
SHAPIRO: That still leaves the question, why England? Chocolate makers wanted to put this center in a place with weather so dreary that none of those awful cocoa diseases could possibly survive outdoors. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.
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