Keeping chocolate prices down: A huge greenhouse in Reading could save the world’s cocoa supply through new genetic material

 
Sarah Spickernell
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Over a quarter of the world's cocoa is destroyed before it even makes it to the chocolate stage (Source: Getty)

With demand for chocolate outstripping supply at an unprecedented rate, its price is set to soar in 2015.

But a giant greenhouse in Reading has come to the rescue, and could stop chocolate from becoming the preserve of the very wealthy.

The International Cocoa Quarantine Centre has been in operation for one month and acts as a cleaning house for cocoa, which has to be quarantined before it can be grown.

Based in Shinfield, a few miles from Reading University, it consists of a huge greenhouse containing 400 cocoa varieties.

By producing new genetic material for cocoa plants, it protects them against destruction by pests and disease – currently, around 30 per cent of the world’s supply is destroyed before it even gets close to the chocolate stage.

"One of the principal issues concerning cocoa improvement is the supply of reliably clean, healthy, interesting cocoa material," Professor Paul Hadley, the cocoa project leader at the University of Reading, told the BBC.

"You need some mechanism to make sure that if you are transferring the stuff, you're not transferring pests and diseases."

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Demand for chocolate is rising in all directions. The west is acquiring a taste for even darker chocolate (which needs more cocoa), while in China the standard of living is improving and luxuries such as chocolate are increasingly being viewed as the norm.

According to Saxo Bank, if the suppliers cannot meet these new demands the cost of cocoa could rise to more than $5,000 (£3,200) a tonne in 2015 – much higher than its most recent peak of $3,318 per tonne.

Chocolate producers agree – Hershey and Mars have both said they expect prices to rise eight and seven per cent respectively in 2015.

When you consider the added impact of Ebola, chocolate’s future looks far from promising: the west African region affected by the current outbreak is responsible for 70 per cent of global cocoa production, and fears that the situation could worsen have led to a spike in prices of the plant.

HOPE REMAINS

According to Hadley, there is a solution, and it involves improving the quality of the cocoa crop and the efficiency with which it is produced. The facility at Reading, with new genetic material in cocoa plants, is key to this.

"Most cocoa is produced by subsistence farmers, who might be farming one or two hectares. As well as needing new, more efficient varieties, they also need to improve the way they grow the cocoa,” he said.

"Putting those two things together, I'm pretty confident. If we did nothing then there would be a crisis, but there's a lot of effort internationally.”

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