In the not-too-distant future, chocolate will become a rarefied luxury, as expensive as caviar.
John Mason, a Canadian expert on cocoa, first made this prophesy six years ago from his base in West Africa, the epicentre of production. He was confident enough to repeat it, over and over, to the directors of the biggest chocolate companies in the world.
"Sometimes they were rude. Sometimes they were polite," he said. "Behind me, they were sort of snickering."
Today they treat him like a guru. An influential set of senior industry heavyweights flew to Ghana last week to hear him speak; the talk ended with an unprecedented agreement between industry competitors and the government to establish a working group that will map out a sustainable future. It is the first such agreement of its kind in the cocoa world.
"Not that many year ago, this would have been impossible," said Mr. Mason, executive director of the Nature Conservation Research Centre, a non-profit devoted to sustainable development and resource conservation. "People were not sufficiently aware of the magnitude of what is on the horizon, how serious the future is."
The industry has been ignoring a looming supply problem, one that's been brought into sharp focus by a political eruption in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa-producing nation.
Productivity on farms is not keeping pace with demand. Fatal diseases plague the crops. The soils cocoa grows in are depleted. Consumer demand, though, is growing. As standards of living improve in China and India, their new taste for chocolate keeps pace, feeding a worldwide consumption increase of about 2 per cent a year.
"We're in a bit of a crisis as an industry," said Chris Brett, vice-president of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Olam International, one of the largest cocoa-buying companies in the world, which sells beans to major chocolate producers, such as Cadbury, Mars and Nestle.
Alone, Ivory Coast produces more than a third of the world's cocoa beans; there is some Ivoirien cocoa content in nearly every mass-produced chocolate bar on store shelves. But Alassane Ouattara, the presidential claimant in the country's disputed November election, is using the crop as a political cudgel. His opponent, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, has the loyalty of the army; cocoa revenues pay his soldiers. Recently, Mr. Ouattara imposed a ban on all cocoa exports, hoping it will force Mr. Gbagbo to leave office, a move which the U.S. and the E.U. support. So far, Mr. Gbagbo has refused. Fears are mounting that Ivory Coast will erupt in civil war.
The uncertainty has set off panic among global chocolate powerbrokers. Their worry is less about this year's harvest, 70 per cent of which has already been extracted (the season runs from October to February); the concern is over next year's crop - and the years that follow. Regardless of how much they can pay for increasingly expensive cocoa - futures hit a 30-year price high last month - there will simply not be enough produced.
Both Ivory Coast and neighbouring Ghana, the world's second-largest cocoa producer, are on course for an ecological implosion. Their tree stocks are aging and sick; soils are depleted, temperatures are rising and rainfall is erratic. Young farmers are disinterested in growing cocoa, which is associated with poverty, and they are leaving for low-paying but more predictable jobs in the city. Those who stay in rural farm areas are struggling to keep up with demand and have little to invest in farm rehabilitation.
Few have any idea how to solve this multifaceted crisis. But Mr. Mason has a notion. For half a dozen years, he's been cobbling together a road map to relief that involves overhauling the current cocoa-business model. He outlined this last Thursday in a Ghanaian hotel conference before rapt cocoa powerbrokers and government officials.
If his plan actually moves forward, the future of chocolate might be saved.
'Food of the gods'
For most of its history, cocoa has been associated with luxury and elitism. Its botanical name, Theobroma, translates literally as "food of the gods."