How Chocolate Was Lost—and May Come Back

If you were asked to name the world’s favorite food, chocolate might be a contender. Every country adores chocolate and it’s the rare inverse economics crop—produced in developing countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia and consumed in developed ones like Switzerland, Ireland, the United States. Usually wealthy countries send aid to poorer ones. Chocolate works in reverse.

More than 70 percent of today’s chocolate is produced from trees in West Africa. That’s strange considering the cacao tree originated in the Americas—specifically in Ecuador, where people crushed beans for cocoa, the sweet inner bean, as long as 5,300 years ago.

So how did Ecuador lose its chocolatey dominance to West Africa? In short, it was stolen.

When the Spanish colonized central America in the 1530s, they brought chocolate back home. The bean became a hot commodity among Spanish nobility. Cacao only grows in the tropics, 15 degrees above and below the equator, so to increase its supply of the elusive crop, Spanish explorers took the plant to their other colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines and eventually West Africa.

West African cocoa—the kind that ends up in most of the world’s chocolate bars, truffles and cereals—is a product of its environment. Just like wine grows well in Bordeaux and no place produces more corn than Iowa, chocolate requires the right mix of nitrogenous soil, ample water, and intermittent sunlight. In other words, it’s perfect for a dense and moist rain forest.

Which brings us back to Ecuador. With the benefits of modern shipping and precision farming, Ecuador wants its chocolate title back. In 2009, Ecuadoran farmers planted new cacao trees that are just now bearing fruit. Last year, cocoa production rose 13 percent over the year before in Ecuador, enough to overtake the behemoth to the south, Brazil.

Lots of chocolate-producing countries are keen to increase their yields. Yet Ecuador might be the best positioned. Dry weather is expected this year in West Africa, while Brazil has been hit with a punishing drought. Meanwhile, the president of the Ecuador’s Cocoa Exporters Association reports that there’s a growing feeling of opportunity. By 2015, Ecuador’s industry is poised to jump from the sixth-biggest producer to the fourth. Peak conditions have made Ecuador’s small-scale banana and coffee farmers start to think about chocolate instead.