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Chocolate Shortage Ahead? Cocoa Beans Face Threats From Climate, Disease, Growing Demand

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A chocolate shortage is probably the last thing you want to hear about today. Valentine's Day is tomorrow -- you may just want to focus on the orgy of cocoa ahead. But experts have been sounding the alarm about cocoa beans for some time. And a big story in this month's Scientific American explains that a chocolate shortage may be in store, whether we want to face it or not.

The cocoa bean supply faces a variety of threats, explain authors Harold Schmitz and Howard-Yana Shapiro, both food scientists at candy conglomerate Mars. Some of the problems they mention are endemic to all agricultural commodities. Demand keeps growing and climate change threatens to undercut supply potential in a serious way. It's the same story, that is, that's being told in industries as close to home as corn and cattle.

The most serious threats, though, come in the form of two diseases that have been sweeping through Latin America killing groves of cocoa trees. They haven't yet spread to West Africa, where the majority of the world's cocoa is produced. But if they do, before scientists can develop breeds of cocoa tree resistant to disease, the effect on the chocolate industry could be devastating.

To some extent, this too is a familiar story. Banana experts have been working for years to find solutions to what is becoming a global epidemic of tree-killing blight. And the twin catastrophes of the Irish potato famine and the Great French Wine Blight of the 19th Century lurk in the grim recesses of agricultural history. But the fact that we've seen blight before should not make us any less concerned today -- at least those of us who like to have affordable chocolate available every Valentine's Day.

Stop by your local newsstand for the February 2012 issue of Scientific American to read "The Future of Chocolate" in full -- it's a great piece, and the issues are far more nuanced than we have space for here.

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