NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — It’s a candy lover’s worst nightmare — a decade from now, the world may start running out of chocolate.
It’s not time yet to hoard the Hershey bars or stockpile M&Ms. But people are gobbling up candy bars twice as fast as chocolate is being produced and this year’s cocoa crop is falling behind expectations.
“It’s not going to disappear overnight,” said Carol Knight, vice president of scientific affairs at the American Cocoa Research Institute in McLean, Va. “But if we don’t work to assure its future, there could be a shortage.”
Last month, the major candy companies gathered at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama with conservation groups and small cocoa farmers — who produce 90 percent of the world’s chocolate — to develop strategies to farm more cocoa beans.
M&M-Mars, based in Hackettstown, paid for the meeting between groups such as Hershey Foods and The Nature Conservancy and the Rainforest Alliance, which are concerned with protecting rain forests that help cocoa grow better.
At stake is a $50 billion worldwide industry that is growing every day. Consumption of chocolate is growing by 3 percent a year, while production is increasing by 1.5 percent. Chocolate manufacturers may soon be interested in expanding sales in China and Eastern European nations, Knight said Tuesday.
And in the United States, “chocolate, by far, is the American favorite food,” said John Lunde, director of international environmental programs for M&M-Mars.
The average American eats about 11.7 pounds of chocolate a year.
Lunde said the consumption rate may cause a chocolate shortage in 10 years if no more cocoa crops are planted.
Cocoa beans, which are dried, then ground, roasted and mixed with sugar and milk to make chocolate, are primarily grown on West Africa’s Ivory Coast, but also in countries like Indonesia and Brazil.
So far, the 1997-98 cocoa crop is falling behind the previous harvest of slightly more than 1 million metric tons because of a lack of rain on the Ivory Coast. Cacao trees, which only grow from 12 to 20 feet high and take about six years to yield cocoa beans, grow best in the shade of taller rain forest trees.