I have recently noted a large number of reports claiming that the world is headed for a chocolate shortage. According to industry insiders, the potential for a shortage exists as a demand issue; as more people become able to afford chocolate around the world, and as more people are developing sweet tooths, more chocolate needs to be in the market to satisfy cravings. Estimates are that if demand increases at the same rate over the next few years as it has over the past few, it will outstrip supply by 2020.
However, in addition to increasing demand, there are also fears on the supply side. Not only are there concerns about supply failing to keep up with demand, there are additionally fears that supply could actually decrease soon. Factors contributing to these concerns are the limited number of places (with varying levels of political and social stability) where the cocoa tree can be grown, fungi and parasites and even climate change. All these factors and others are contributing to an increasing fears of a supply shock which could further foil efforts to keep up with demand.
Luckily, two of the benefits of modern science may be able to help out. First off, as the Scientific American article linked-to above notes, the production of cocoa is very inefficient at the present; yields may only be 33% of their potential. Proper use of chemical insecticides and fungicides could increase that number dramatically. The other area of science which could help is genetic engineering. Apparently, unlike, say corn, which has thousands of different strains, there are only 10 varieties of cocoa plants, all of which are in the same species. This of course makes populations vulnerable to disease, an issue a collaboration between industry and the Department of Agriculture is trying to address through genome mapping and subsequently, breeding programs.
Aside from a personal stake in this issue as a hopeless chocolate lover, it is also an issue which fits nicely into this site's area of expertise. Though science will help to solve this problem, it is also one that can be uniquely discussed using economics. Demand is on the rise. A supply shock is a real possibility due to disease. On a mixed macro/micro level, it is a huge export crop and creator of jobs in many equatorial nations. The increase in demand points to the rise of middle classes in developing nations across the world. You could almost build a first year economics course load just around the cocoa plant.
Here's hoping the scientists can figure it out. I am guessing that with the amount of money at stake, research will be moving ahead at breakneck speed and will ensure that the Great Chocolate Shortage of 2020 will always be more of a headline than an actual problem. That said, if any of our readers know how long a Hershey bar will keep in the freezer, I would appreciate a note in the comments section...