Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Heavenly" Cocoa literally reaching the heaven! Supply side problems can destroy chocolate industry

Chocolate products made by processing cocoa beans into the cocoa mass and cocoa butter have carved out a niche place in the hearts of consumers both young as well as old over the last 5 decades with a few international conglomerates ruling the roost. Chocolates create a dichotomous image in that some scientists feel they contribute to the run away obesity syndrome that is common in many developed countries while the scientific community including health specialists vouch for the good aspects of cocoa nutrition to elevate it to a pedestal based on the antioxidant credentials of cocoa phenolics present in abundance in this beverage crop. Probably both arguments are true if the ground reality vis-a-vis cocoa industry is taken into consideration. Per se chocolates cannot be considered an obesogenic substance unless they contain high levels of sugar and saturated fat, both capable of generating high calories, which may be unnecessary for a person consuming a regular balanced diet.and eating chocolates in moderate amounts can always be condonable with no guilty conscience! Emergence of so called bitter chocolates with low sugar levels as a healthy food bears testimony to this fact. It is against this context that one has to view the alarming reports about likely scarcity of cocoa beans predicted to happen soon. Let us look at the multidimensional impact of such a shortage on the industry as well as the consumers.

If industry leaders are to be believed chocolate prices have been going north during the last 3 years with prices registering more than 60% increase for most brands. This inflationary trend has been attributed to supply sources being adversely affected reducing the flow of bean very significantly. More than 65% of global production of  cocoa beans, estimated at about 3.7 million tons, is accounted for by western African nations like Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria.and any productivity decline there can causes shocks in the international cocoa market. According.to International Cocoa Organization production of cocoa has suffered a 40% decline last year due to the impact of the devastating fungal disease called Frosty Food that has ravaged the agricultural landscape in Africa. There does not appear to be any let up in the production decline which has already caused a deficit of about 70000 tons currently which may reach the 1 million ton mark soon in about 7 years. Imagine the consequences of such a dimension of shortage on the fortunes of the chocolate industry since cocoa beans cannot be substituted with any other known substance to day. Naturally chocolate industry will have to find ways and means to tackle this problem in the long run with an adequate and feasible response.  

The production decline in cocoa alone cannot account for the shortage being experienced by the chocolate industry which always has the means to absorb minor shocks through technological means. For example products like white chocolate, milk chocolate or other varieties do not need as much cocoa solids as pure chocolates or bitter chocolates and small dip in cocoa production can be dealt with by varying the product mix to lessen the proportion of these high cocoa containing products. Similarly cocoa butter which is an essential ingredient in good quality chocolates can be replaced or substituted to a limited extent by plant fats with similar melting and crystallizing properties. Sugar component also can be increased or suitable fillers like caramel, nougats etc can be incorporated to reduce the cocoa solids level. Naturally such changes in formulations can reduce the over all sensory quality of these products and if cocoa crunch continues as being predicted, consumers will have no option but to compromise on eating quality expectations.        

Another interesting point being mentioned in chocolate circles is that growth of chocolate market, currently placed at $ 50 billion, is going through a high growth phase resulting in widening of demands across the world. Such unusual demand for chocolate is largely being driven by countries like China, Europe and the US where chocolate consumption is growing at a rate considered very high. China which is an established economic super power to day, has more people aspiring to imitate the life styles prevalent in the US and Europe and chocolate industry sees a great surge in demand in this country. Western Europe with a $ 12 billion market never seems to be getting satiated pushing the demand for chocolates further .Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Belgium. are leading countries driving the market in Europe. In the US consumers are demanding bitter chocolates and products containing more than 70% cocoa solids which again is putting a stress on the supply side of cocoa beans. In other markets like India and other developing countries due to buying power constraints lower end chocolate products like milk chocolates which use only about 10% cocoa solids may meet the market demand. Eastern Bloc countries are reported to be emerging as a dynamic market for chocolate products which did not exist a few years ago. 

Adding to the worries of the chocolate industry there is a powerful movement campaigning against use of cocoa beans from countries like Ivory Coast because of extensive use of child labor in the plantations there. According to some estimates in Ivory Coast alone more than 2,00,000 children aged between 5 and 15 years are working in plantations there with about 6% being suspected to be there through child trafficking. The famous Harken-Engel Protocol.now being insisted upon for buying cocoa beans stipulates that child labor is not used in production activities in cocoa plantations though there is no international agency at present which has the mandate to enforce the Protocol. "Slave free" label for all chocolate products were suggested but no one seems to be taking this seriously. So are the consumers who at present are not sensitive to this issue of child labor though in future there could be pressure from consumer community on the chocolate industry to shun supplies from plantations employing child labor. This can certainly further restrict supplies of beans substantially in coming years.unless major chocolate manufacturers attempt backward integration with producers of cocoa beans to make certain that slavery is avoided or reduced progressively over a period of time.

While technological approach to design new products with lesser and lesser cocoa solids can meet the market contingency, long term solution can come only if efforts are made to increase cocoa bean production through expanded acreage for cultivation and increased productivity from the existing plantations. Probably it is a question of time before agricultural scientists are able to coax the cocoa plant to yield more crops but there is some anxiety that meddling with natural cocoa plant may unwittingly reduce some of the desirable qualities for which cocoa is known. As apprehended preliminary experiments with new cocoa plants have already confirmed that these new "avatars" have a different flavor profile once it is converted and processed into the chocolate products which the consumers may have difficulty to reconcile to! .Chocolate industry on the other hand is being pushed to a corner with no alternatives but to use them with the hope that consumers will eventually accept them. Surely chocolate industry is at cross roads to day and only imaginative, constructive and environment friendly approach can save it from catastrophe!