Sydney Science Forum: The Chocolate Crisis

5 April 2012

Dark, delicious and decadent, the rich flavour of chocolate has inspired passions, addictions and even literature for more than three thousand years. However, a chocolate supply crisis may be looming. Hear how Professor David Guest, from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, is helping counter a chocolate catastrophe when he gives his Sydney Science Forum talk - The Chocolate Crisis - on 18 April.

Cacao is produced from fruit of the tropical tree, Theobroma cacao, literally meaning 'food of the Gods'. Not just appetising, chocolate also has health benefits - reducing blood pressure and enhancing psychological happiness.

Professor Guest will take us on a delectable journey through the history of cocoa cultivation and chocolate, which is grown in West Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He'll reveal trends in production and consumption.

As cacao is grown in areas vulnerable to threats of climate change, political instability, pests and diseases, Professor Guest will focus on the major threats to our chocolate supply.

"We're in a situation where chocolate manufacturers are anxious about meeting demand, as there's rapidly increasing chocolate consumption in developing economies, paired with instability in cacao growing areas," said Professor Guest.

"Threats to cacao production include pests and disease, ageing plantations, poorly trained farmers and poorly managed trees, climate change, dependence on a narrow genetic base, crop substitution where cacao is replaced by maize because of the demand for bioethanol, and political instability."

To counter a chocolate catastrophe, Professor David Guest's research supports the chocolate industry by improving the sustainability and profitability of smallholder cacao production. Professor Guest and his colleagues' work with farmers in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Bougainville shows that good farm management increases yields, resulting in improved living standards, reduced rainforest clearing, political and social stability, and securing future supplies of chocolate.

Professor David Guest in Papua New Guinea with local scientists John Konam (left) and Anthon Kamuso (centre) with cacao farmers.
Professor David Guest in Papua New Guinea with local scientists John Konam (left) and Anthon Kamuso (centre) with cacao farmers.

"We work with farmers to select better genotypes of cacao, to demonstrate improved crop and soil management, to understand the constraints they face and what can be done to improve technical support," said Professor Guest.

"The keys to reducing diseases and pests are sanitation, pruning and regular harvesting. We have a mantra for the farmers to remind them to regularly harvest their cacao crops: 'Every pod, every tree, every week'."

"We've found it's really effective to explain to farmers that disease is caused by microorganisms similar to those that cause human disease. Showing farmers how the pathogens survive and spread helps their understanding and leads them to realise that they can reduce disease with improved management," explained Professor Guest.

"Otherwise cacao farmers tend to blame nebulous factors like climate change or more virulent pathogen strains, which they feel powerless to do anything about."

The chocolate crisis is exacerbated by the fact that global chocolate consumption is rising by 2-3% annually.

"Chocolate consumption trends are different around the globe. In Australia, Europe and North America total consumption - around 6kg of chocolate per capita per year - is stable, but the trend is to dark chocolates or to niche marketed gourmet chocolates. Consumption dropped slightly during the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009," said Professor Guest.

"In China, India, Eastern Europe and Brazil, however, per capita consumption rates are increasing rapidly, albeit from a relatively low base.

"One estimate is that global production will need to increase by one million tonnes per year by 2020 - from 3.6 million tonnes in 2009/2010 - to meet global demand."

Circumventing a chocolate catastrophe is in capable hands.

"While controlling disease is relatively straightforward in theory, changing farming practice to become more sustainable and rewarding is a much more complex challenge involving social, economic, political and environmental factors," said Professor Guest.

"This is a challenge we have to meet if we are going to secure the world's supply of chocolate, while at the same time improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers."

Galit Segev, food scientist and chef, will reveal the science of working with chocolate, from technique tips to practical points.

After the Sydney Science Forum, join in an exciting array of hands-on activities, including chocolate tasting.

Sydney Science Forum -The Chocolate Crisis:

Date: Wednesday 18 April 2012
Time: 5.45pm - 6.45pm
Venue: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney
Cost: Free

Contact: Katynna Gill

Phone: 02 9351 6997

Email: 05022c0a1738391a05060a01790010325c534c1c110c344c2f17