During the American Association of Candy Technologists’ (AACT)  National Technical Seminar held in Lincolnsire, Ill., Ed Seguine, chocolate research fellow for Mars Global Chocolate,  examined a topic that’s been on nearly every chocolate manufacturer’s hot button list: sustainability.

 Seguine didn’t pull any punches; he talked about the pending cocoa deficit, the need to put farmers first and the steps that have been taken that offer some long-term solutions.

Unlike other agricultural crops — such as corn, rice, wheat and sugar — cocoa is an orphan crop, he pointed out.

As Seguine explained, “An orphan crop is defined as one which lacks substantive, reliable, long-term funding to allow an ongoing science-based program aimed towards yield improvements, pest and disease resistance, and development of improved agronomic traits in the crop.”

And while there’s been significant investment lately from a range of industry, government and non-government groups and agencies in cocoa research, that effort only goes back a few years. Unlike crops such as corn, rice, wheat and sugar, cocoa crop yields have remained horribly stagnant since 1930.

Add to that an increased demand for chocolate during the next decade — a projected shortfall of 1 million metric tons by 2020 — and suddenly images of shortages and price spirals start to appear. Moreover, as Seguine pointed out, one can expect an even higher shortfall “every decade thereafter for the next several decades.” Scary stuff.

There are, however, some solutions available. As Seguine explains, cocoa is a “smaller holder crop,” meaning that the majority of the world’s production comes from farms ranging between two and five hectares a piece. A four-hectare farm that’s producing about 2 metric tons annually brings in about $3,696 at today’s market prices.

If a typical family household has six people, that’s comes out to a daily average income of $1.69 per person, Seguine calculated. As he went on to emphasize, the Millennium Development Goal’s definition of extreme poverty is $1.25 per person, per day. That’s not really a great incentive for anyone to want to be a cocoa farmer.

But neither consumers nor chocolate supply chain participants are willing to up the price of chocolate by 8 to 10 times to rectify the situation, Seguine acknowledged. That’s just not feasible.

What is feasible, however, is dramatically improving the yield. Thanks to the evolution of genomic science, the cocoa researchers have made great strides in introducing new cocoa clones that promise disease resistance, yield gains and, also critically important, flavor development.

Moreover, these gains have allowed researchers to speed up cloning efficiency from seven years (typical length for a cocoa tree to mature) to seven months. Now that’s fast-tracking cocoa breeding. So thanks to science and some really dedicated scientists, there’s hope for the future.

Nonetheless, as Seguine emphasized, there’s still plenty left to do to ensure that future generations —be they in the field or in a food store —have the opportunity to enjoy fine-flavored chocolate.

  It’s clear that there needs to be even more collaboration amongst industry participants to provide a secure livelihood for famers, which, in turn, guarantees a secure supply chain of cocoa.