In the weeks before Valentine’s Day, U.S. consumers will buy nearly 58 million pounds of chocolate. This love affair is not limited to just one day or one country: Chocolate has spread from its native home in Central and South America to conquer the world. But today, cacao cultivation is facing a series of wicked problems—ones that threaten to drastically shrink the supply of chocolate just as global demand grows. If the threats aren’t taken seriously, might we lose one of our favorite treats? And, if so, will we also lose our next wonder drug?
For most of its roughly 5,000-year history, chocolate has been the exclusive preserve of Mesoamericans. The Olmec people, who lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico, were likely the first to domesticate the cacao tree and determine that the key to uncovering chocolate’s rich, complex flavors lay in separating the seeds from the white, fragrant, mucilaginous pulp, fermenting those seeds, drying them, roasting them, and winnowing the bitter beans away from their shells.
When European conquistadors first encountered cacao, they took a while to appreciate the spicy, frothy drinks the Aztec and Maya made with their precious brown beans—but, before long, chocolate caught on. From the 1600s, the chocolate habit spread from the Spanish nobility throughout Europe, and, finally, back to North America again. As it did so, it changed in both form and function, from cash to candy, from beverage to bar, and from aphrodisiac to cardiovascular medicine.