Cocoa supply trends – Setting the record straight

by Ron Sterk
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The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Mark Twain wrote in May 1897, although the misquote, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” is more commonly repeated. Could the same be said of the approaching chocopalypse?

“News” was circulating the past few weeks that the world may run out of chocolate — referred to by some as the chocolypse or chocopalypse — in less than a decade. More than one story indicated the world may see a cocoa deficit of one million tonnes by 2020 and two million tonnes by 2030. While at least one story was less than precise, referring to “chocolate deficits, whereby farmers produce less cocoa than the world eats, are becoming the norm.”

In over-simplified terms, farmers grow cocoa beans and processors grind the beans into cocoa liquor, which is sold as cocoa liquor or pressed into cocoa cake (which is ground into powder) to extract cocoa butter. Cocoa liquor and cocoa butter are mixed together (along with sugar, milk and other ingredients) to make chocolate.

Cocoa powder is used in dry mixes and drinks (chocolate milk) among other items. There is a “deficit” when cocoa bean grind (demand) exceeds cocoa bean production (supply), which is possible, even common, because the world typically has a year-to-year carryover (stocks-to-use ratio) approaching 40%, which is huge compared to commodities such as soybeans at 20% to 30%, sugar and wheat around 25% and corn less than 20%.

Journalistic nitpicking aside, the recent stories quoted credible sources — Barry Callebaut Group chief executive Juergen Steinemann — and appeared to add to dire forecasts dating back to 2010 from several chocolate manufacturers. But is the world really going to run out of chocolate? Ever? The answer is probably no.

The International Cocoa Organization (I.C.C.O.) issued a statement Nov. 21 in response to the reports:

“(The I.C.C.O.) would like to emphasize that its projections in no way bear out this fear, which it finds to be overstated in the extreme. There has been a tight relationship between supply and demand over the years and, while our projections show that supply deficits are likely to occur during the next several years, stocks of cocoa beans should cushion this development before production growth accelerates. There is no threat to the supply of cocoa for chocolate manufacture.”

The I.C.C.O. is talking about basic supply and demand. If demand exceeds supply, prices rise to the level that supply is rationed and production is spurred until balance is returned to the market. Soybeans are a recent example. U.S. soybean stocks fell to multi-year lows before harvest, crush slowed and prices rose in October even as a record large 2014 crop loomed. More soybeans are expected to be planted in 2015. The United States and the world didn’t run out of soybeans. Granted, cocoa beans are a vastly different crop with new trees needing three to four years to become productive, but the supply-and-demand fundamentals are similar.

The organization has gone even further: “Sometimes the industry may be tempted to amplify the prospect of a supply deficit for its own purpose,” I.C.C.O. executive director Jean-Marc Anga said at the World Cocoa Conference in June.

The I.C.C.O. acknowledged the reports highlighted the challenges of cocoa bean production, largely in politically unstable third-world countries, diseases, pests, sustainability and even Ebola.

Cocoa beans are produced in more than 40 countries, with over 70% of global production in Africa, about 15% in Southeast Asia and Oceania and a bit less than 15% in Latin America. Yields vary depending on weather and husbandry practices (fertilization, pest and disease control). Though cultivated for about 3,000 years, cocoa bean production always has been challenging, with an estimated 30% to 40% of global production lost to diseases and pests, but the industry has adapted. Brazil was the world’s leading cocoa bean producer until a disease called witches’ broom wiped out about 70% of the nation’s production a few decades ago. So the center of cocoa bean production shifted to other areas, all of which already were producing cocoa beans, especially West Africa.

The I.C.C.O. went on to note that in the past 10 years there have been five years of production deficit and five years of surplus. The organization’s latest (August) 2013-14 forecast of global cocoa bean production was 4.345 million tonnes, up 10% from 2012-13, with grindings at 4.262 million tonnes, up 4%, and an expected surplus of 40,000 tonnes (the math doesn’t work because of weight loss from the gross crop), up sharply from a deficit of 208,000 tonnes in 2012-13. Carryover was seen at 1.66 million tonnes, and it was noted that the world’s two largest cocoa bean producers — Ivory Coast and Ghana — had record production in 2013-14, which ended Sept. 30. The I.C.C.O. does expect small deficits over the next five years, and a 100,000-tonne deficit, not 1 million tonnes, by 2020.

It would appear the shortage of “the food of the gods,” as cocoa was known as in the 17th century, may have been greatly exaggerated.
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