Global Sweet Tooth as a Driver of Development?

February 14, 2013 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

Today is Valentine’s Day, and if you’re like me, you tend to regard the holiday more like a bad movie of the week than a driver of global development. But look around you, and what do you see? Chocolate – and it’s everywhere. In fact, Americans will spend around $700 million on chocolate goodies this Valentine’s Day, so clearly, I’m not alone in my addiction, er, proclivity for the stuff. These tasty delights are not only big business in America, but also the cornerstone of several developing world economies.

Let’s peel back the wrapper a bit.

Two continents account for almost three quarters of global chocolate consumption: Europe and North America, with Americans consuming over 20% of the chocolate pie. On the flipside, three countries produce around two-thirds of all cocoa exports: Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia. West Africa as a group, however, accounts for around 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa.

Step back and look at it on a global scale, and you’ve got 5-6 million who harvest cocoa seeds and who represent some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. Then, there are the 40-50 million who make up the production and supply chains required to transform the cocoa bean into your favorite treat.

Good thing the demand for cocoa is growing.

This is great news for the chocolate industry, which rakes in around $90 billion a year. To put this into context, this is more than the GDP of 130 countries. It is no wonder chocolate companies are eager to fuel this trend on Valentine’s Day – and every other holiday, life celebrations, breakups, and “just because” moments.

It is also why the industry is concerned with potential shortages caused by disease, pests, and unsustainable farming practices. With regard to disease, cocoa trees in Latin America were recently decimated by some nasty ones, and while they have not yet spread to West Africa, research in the latest Scientific American warns that chocolate shortages could be ahead – gulp!

Plus, while chocolate can be a powerful motivator, cocoa trees are quite susceptible to disease and pests. In fact, fifteen years ago, a fungal disease attacked chocolate trees in Brazil and devastated production by 80%. The result was a mass migration into “city shantytowns—effectively destroying in a few short years a vast archive of cacao-farming knowledge built over centuries.”  And unfortunately, scientific research on cocoa is globally under-resourced and falls way behind other crops.

Time to stockpile? Maybe not just yet.

This is where industry and government scientists come into the picture. A year ago, Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, kicked off new partnership with the World Cocoa Foundation and the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) to help farmers throughout the West African region.  On the industry side, there are companies like Virginia-based Mars, Inc. that prioritize cacao research and factor the sustainability of its cocoa supply into its long-term business model.

One of the world’s leading chocolate manufacturers, Mars partners with NGOs and governments to help farmers produce healthier crops, which leads to a better quality of supply and more money for farming communities. This is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Mars, Inc. with the Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) in 2010 for their work in Ghana, where cocoa is the single largest employer of any sector. The award recognizes “the critical role that U.S. businesses play” in creating “enabling environments where democracy and economic development can flourish.”

By purchasing from Ghana, Mars helped the country increase its cocoa exports from 3.8 tons of cacao to more than 27.5 tons in a three year period. The bottom line is that looking out for the interests of cocoa-growing communities is good for Mars’ business bottom line.

So this Valentine’s Day, go ahead and indulge. After all, millions of smallholder cocoa farmers are betting their families’ livelihoods on the crop – and upon our need for chocolate candy, ice cream, mocha half-half, no whip chocolate espresso concoctions, and well, you get the point.