Will chocolate be worth its weight in gold? Will this wonderful food of the gods become a luxury only the high priests of finance can afford, something akin to caviar? A recent article in the British newspaper, The Independent, recently speculated on the possibility of such a scenario 20 years from now. 

Quoting London chocolatier Marc Demarquette, the article cites several reasons why chocolate, and specifically cocoa, is in peril. Pointing to a doubling of cocoa prices during the last six years, the writer Anthea Gerrie suggests that a decline in quality, quantity and general interest in farming cocoa beans as a crop will have dire consequences for future harvests. 

 One of the most salient points Gerrie makes is that the young people who reside in the cocoa-growing areas are leaving the country to seek their fortunes in the big city as opposed to spending time cultivating the lands for 80 cents a day. 

Interestingly, the World Cocoa Foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary last month during its 18th partnership meeting in Washington, D.C. The three-day event featured a variety of presentations addressing the very same issues that Gerrie brought up in her article. 

 On the Foundation’s web site (www.worldcocoafoundation.org), I was able to skim through several PDFs of presentations defining and detailing the challenges that the cocoa and chocolate industry faces during the coming years. 

Co-keynote speaker Frank Mars’ PowerPoint slides -  yes that Mars - details the impact substandard farmer incomes, pests and diseases, deforestation and community destabilization has had on the Ivory Coast and other countries’ production and quality output. 

The Mars plan for changing this sad state of affairs revolves around a three-point program that’s designed to improve environmental management of cocoa growing areas, invigorate rural communities and improve farmer income. 

There are slides showing a cocoa pod composting business model, which uses technology, machinery and soil microorganism to help manage pests and diseases, farmer-owned nurseries, designed to grow new trees, and social programs aimed at digging clean water wells and buiding bridges with recycled materials. 

Mars also addresses cocoa certification as a tool for improving conditions for the farmer, and thus making sustainable cocoa a reality. One of the callouts in the slide hits home: (One) Cannot certify poverty…certification must be credible. 

Mars goes on to say that the company’s entire cocoa supply will be certifiable by 2020. Certainly certification is one of the tools that many cocoa and chocolate companies see as a means of improving conditions and consequences for cocoa-growing farmers. But let’s not use it as a means of minimizing direct involvement with farmers and the cocoa-growing regions. 

I can only applaud the efforts made by Mars Inc. as well as several of the other major players in cocoa, such Hershey, Nestlé, Kraft  Foods, Ferrero, Barry Callebaut, Cargill, ADM, Blommer, and countless others who have invested millions of dollars into not only addressing child labor issues, but improving cocoa communities throughout the world. I would also like to bring some attention to midsized companies, as highlighted by our cover feature this month on ICAM, who have been directly involved in this process for decades. 

Angelo Agostoni, president and head of sourcing for  the Lecco, Italy-based company knows well what direct involvement can do; he’s seen quality and quantity improvements in the fields of South America thanks to improved tree management, building of drying  and fermentation centers, and personal commitment. 

“We can make a difference for a farmer who owns between two to three hectares and yields only a ton per year,” Agostoni asserts.” Today, there are areas where we see 30 to 40 tons per year from one hectare.”

 As you read this month’s cover story, it becomes clear that this wasn’t an overnight endeavor for Agostoni. His passion and perserverance for fine cocoa as well as his direct relationships with farmers to improve their capabilities and revenues make him a pioneer in what now has become a critical turning point for the cocoa industry. In one of his final slides, Mars asks the question, “Are we willing to do what it takes to make cocoa production sustainable?” 

 Perhaps it’s time for all of us to ramp it up a bit more. It’s a beautiful industry; we don’t want to make it an exclusive one. 

Oh, by the way, an ounce of Beluga caviar goes for $140. And gold - at press time was trading at just under $1,400 an oz. Typically, most chocolate bars range between $1.00 to $5.00…today.