Sweet nothings

India may one day run out of chocolate – and the blame will be on all of us

Climate change, combined with unsustainable farming practices, is affecting cacao yield around the world. India is no different.

Whether it’s an occasional treat or a fine dining novelty, whether we’re chewing it or chugging it, India’s interest in chocolate – and its raw ingredient, cacao – has never been greater. Chocolate in India is no longer only milky and overly sweet. A craft beer aficionado can enjoy a malty chocolate stout. If you were one of the 120 people who attended Mumbai-based Danda Food Project’s series of Pod to Plate pop-up dinners late last year, you’d have been treated to vegetables roasted in cacao butter, and a mignonette made with cacao fruit.

Per capita, Indians eat about 170g of chocolate per year. That isn’t much, compared to the average Swiss who puts away close to 9kg a year, but consumption is growing. According to Mintel, the chocolate confectionery market in India is expected to grow 20.6% every year from 2016 to 2020, making it one of the fastest growing markets for chocolate in the world.

Ironically, though, India’s growing appetite for chocolate comes at a time when cacao supplies are shrinking globally. For a few years now, there’s been a widespread meltdown about cacao, with chocolate makers and chocolate eaters everywhere distraught that global production could fall short by as soon as 2020. The way forward is not as simple as growing more Theobroma cacao – like coffee, the food of the gods has been hit hard by Earth’s changing climate. By 2050, it could dwindle to almost nothing.

Photo credit: cgdsro/Pixabay [CC0 Creative Commons]
Photo credit: cgdsro/Pixabay [CC0 Creative Commons]

Better business

For now at least, worries about shrinking global supplies don’t seem to have percolated to local industry players in India. Here, business – both mass-market and artisanal – is better than ever. Avant-garde bean-to-bar offerings like Pascati, Earth Loaf and Mason & Co, which collaborated with Danda Food Project for its Pod to Plate series, have popped up in places like Daman, Mysore and Puducherry.

In 2016, Cocoashala, the country’s first bean-to-bar chocolate school, opened its doors in Chennai. Nitin Chordia, its founder, is one of the many Indian chocolate aficionados who dismiss pronouncements about “peak cacao” as media hype – “Sure, there may be times in the future when consumption outpaces supply, but that is true of any agricultural commodity, right? Why treat cacao differently?”

Cacao, traditionally an understory tropical rainforest tree, grows in very specific conditions in the thin band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. A seminal study, published in the journal Climatic Change in 2013, showed that temperatures are rising and rainfall is reducing in these areas, which is taking a toll on cacao production.

More recent climate models predict that the West African cacao belt, which produces 70% of the world’s cacao, will no longer be suitable for its cultivation in a few decades. In these regions, forests were cleared to make way for industrial monocrop plantations. Cacao grown in direct sunlight can be more productive, but over time, these trees – exposed to increasingly arid conditions – will struggle to bear fruit.

Around the world, the chocolate industry is spending billions to find new ways to address the looming scarcity of cacao. Leading chocolate manufacturers such as Barry Callebaut, Hershey, Lindt & Sprüngli, Mars, and Nestlé have come together to try and make cacao cultivation more sustainable – racing to make sure we still get our fix of chocolate, and they still have some to sell us.

Yet, the idea of an impending cacao shortage doesn’t unsettle Earth Loaf’s David Belo. “A few years ago, people said the same thing about tequila, but agave [the succulents from which the spirit is made] bounced back,” he pointed out. And tequila companies made a tidy profit off that fear, too.

Photo credit: Earth Loaf/Facebook
Photo credit: Earth Loaf/Facebook

Sustainable and profitable?

It is true that when compared to other parts of the world, cacao in India is actually grown quite sustainably, which helps mitigate the effects of climate change on the crop. And even though the country contributes just a speck to global stocks (less than 0.5%, to be precise), we’re growing more cacao than ever before. The trees seem to thrive in the near-tropical southern states, usually on small, biodiverse landholdings. Homegrown cacao is often grown under the canopy of coconut or areca nut, and it’s not uncommon to find banana, pepper and nutmeg on the same plot of land as well.

“With monocrops, the plant suffers, and the soil suffers,” said Dr Varanashi Krishna Moorthy, a veteran organic cacao farmer in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. “Intercropped cacao is better for the environment, and it protects the farmer against crop failures and price fluctuations too.” On and around Varanashi Farms, cacao grows in near-forest conditions, like the shade-grown jungle crop it is.

In the Idukki district of Kerala, too, cacao farmers are working to improve their growing practices and obtain organic certification. Around 150 of them sell their cacao to small-scale post-harvest processors Luca Beltrami and Ellen Taerwe of GoGround Beans & Spices, who, for the past three years, have refined the drying and fermenting process to deliver more finely flavoured cacao beans and nibs.

Growers and processors like these are supported by the new breed of chocolate makers like Belo of Earth Loaf and Jane Mason of Mason & Co. Being in the business of bean-to-bar means they have to take the bean seriously, and so they often get involved in processes at the farm. Although Belo and Mason’s concerns are less to do with climate change and more to do with quality, the kind of cacao they support – grown on diversified agroforestry systems – is more resistant to diseases and adverse climatic conditions.

At first glance, this seems to be a smidgen of sweet news in the usually bitter intersection of climate change and agriculture. But is it enough?

Bigger problem

Even though small players like Earth Loaf, Mason & Co, and GoGround pay premium prices to incentivise better quality cacao – and, by extension, more sustainable growing practices – they aren’t at a scale that’s large enough to matter yet. Really, it’s the industrial chocolate manufacturers that determine how cacao is grown, traded, and consumed in India.

It was largely because of Mondelēz (the makers of Cadbury) that cacao began to be cultivated here commercially at all, in the 1960s. It’s no surprise then, that according to Nielsen’s market research, nearly seven times out of 10 that we reach out for chocolate, it’s Cadbury we choose.

Photo courtesy: Mondelez India.
Photo courtesy: Mondelez India.

Most of our old-school, mainstream treats are loaded with sugar and hydrogenated vegetable fat and rarely contain more than 25% cacao, so mass-market manufacturers have had little use for low-yielding, high-quality beans. In fact, much of the research on the workhorse varietals currently in use in India has been driven by industry itself. Mondelēz’s 50-year-old Cocoa Life programme, for instance, funds research at agricultural universities, and runs nurseries that provide seedlings to around 7,000 cacao farmers every year, said KP Magudapathy, the senior manager of cocoa operations at Mondelēz India, in an email interview.

It makes sense that the focus has been on developing hardy and relatively high-yielding varieties for today, with little attention to climate-change tolerant seeds or farm practices for the future. Just as with pulses and oilseeds, we are far from self-sufficient in cacao production. Currently, the country imports more than half of the cacao it consumes – between 2016 and 2017, 63,613 metric tonnes were brought into India.

Uncertain future

India needs more cacao quickly. The area under cacao cultivation is expanding, and there are signs that production is intensifying too. Back in 1996, a study from Kerala had already indicated an uptick in the use of chemical fertilisers, and decreasing levels of shade to improve productivity on cacao farms. And now with the West African cacao belt at risk, and multinational conglomerates like Mars, Nestlé, Hershey and Ferrero making countries like India central to their growth strategies, diversely intercropped cacao could become a thing of the past.

As the government and big industry players push for a more intensive cultivation system, cacao production in the subcontinent – the tiniest square in a very big global bar – might not look too different from the model that dominates the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia.

The problems to come may be similar too. Although global climate models haven’t predicted outcomes specific to India, research from closer home indicates that, no matter what we’d like to believe, the country’s cacao-producing states are not immune to the impacts of climate change. In a book titled Climate Change and Plantations in the Human Tropics, published in 2016, agrometeorologist GSLHV Prasada Rao recorded “yield loss of cocoa in Kerala due to unfavourable weather events in recent years”.

Photo credit: Tookapic/Pexels [CC0 Creative Commons]
Photo credit: Tookapic/Pexels [CC0 Creative Commons]

Frequent and unpredictable weather events are a hallmark of climate change, along with increasing temperatures. Sometimes, the consequences can be quite severe. Such as in the summer of 2004, when a 1-3 degree rise above normal maximum temperatures was registered, and annual cacao yield declined by a significant 39%.

Rao charted data over nearly the entire period of commercial cocoa cultivation in Kerala. His findings are clear: cocoa yield is low when maximum temperatures are high. It’s low when there’s too little rainfall, when there is too much rainfall, and when there’s untimely rainfall. And in the years to come, that’s likely to be the case more often than not.

Shivaramu HS, head of the agro-meteorology section at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru, agreed that climate change has already begun to have some impact on cacao in India. Warmer temperatures have reduced the area suitable for cocoa cultivation in the plains of Tamil Nadu, he said, and unexpected aberrations in rainfall have made cacao more dependent on drip irrigation and more susceptible to waterlogging in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For now though, climate scientists seem to be voicing their warnings in a vacuum. Industry players and the cacao growers themselves appear preoccupied with other, more immediate concerns.

Photo courtesy: Mondelez India.
Photo courtesy: Mondelez India.

One thing at a time

According to Varun Inamdar, a chef and chocolatier, it’s a steady market price, and not “abstract threats” like climate change, that will determine whether production of cacao within the country remains sustainable. Farmers have to want to stay in production for production not to fall, he said.

Sabu Mathew, a cacao farmer from Idukki who sells his beans to GoGround for post-harvest processing, agreed with Inamdar. Mathew has about 1,000 cacao trees of a little-known, local variety he identifies only as manguva. It isn’t one of the hybrids provided by Mondelēz or the agricultural universities, but he said it is fairly disease-resistant, and fruits well without any chemical inputs. Mathew’s concerns have nothing to do with the climate, either. “If the price is good, people will find a way to cultivate,” he said simply.

Unknowingly, both he and Inamdar echoed the sentiments of some global agriculture experts, who have stated that “the real threat to cacao production isn’t climate change, it’s the inability of smallholder cacao farmers to enjoy healthy and rewarding livelihoods”.

Nonetheless, shouldn’t we be a little less cavalier about a hotter, less hospitable future in which India might be unable to grow the beans it’s developed such a taste for? Well, maybe not, as Varanashi pointed out from his cacao farm in Karnataka: “What can happen? If it comes down to it, we will have to forget about cacao production, and think about how we are going to grow our food. After all, cacao is still for the rich man, it is not a staple.”

And he’s right. But while single-origin bars and chocolate stout won’t feed India, they will be sorely missed.

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