Chocolate Bunnies Can Teach Us to Save Our Food Supply

Easter 2022 arrives this week with its usual egg-hunting and chocolate-bunny traditions, but also with some bitter new realities.

A fresh outbreak of avian flu in the U.S. has wiped out tens of millions of hens in recent weeks, causing a shortfall in the eggs typically sold for dying and decorating — and reminding us once again about the vulnerability of our food supply. And while there’s no shortage of chocolate confections on store shelves, consumers will be paying more, and these higher prices are a harbinger of growing environmental and social burdens imperiling the industry.

Let’s not sugarcoat this: Major candy makers such as Hershey Co., Mars Inc. and Nestlé SA need to overhaul their production practices if they want to continue feeding the world’s chocolate habit. One good example for these legacy brands to follow is the Dutch startup Tony’s Chocolonely, one of the fastest-growing chocolate brands in the U.S. and Europe. This small chocolatier — with $110 million in 2021 revenue compared with Hershey’s $8.9 billion — is pioneering ethical business practices and climate-smart farming methods that could save an increasingly unsustainable industry.

At the heart of the challenge is production of chocolate’s key ingredient, cacao. Nearly 70% of the world’s cacao beans are grown in West Africa — mostly in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire — where increasingly hot and dry conditions are hurting farm yields and pushing up costs. Severe deforestation is on the rise as farmers seek more arable land.

Demand for cacao, meanwhile, is surging: A recent National Confectioners Association report shows consumers devoured nearly $37 billion in candy worldwide last year — a more than 10% increase since 2020 thanks to social media campaigns and stress-eating during the pandemic. The biggest part of the candy surge was chocolate, with $22 billion in 2021 sales.

Hershey is one legacy chocolate brand that has seen strong recent sales while feeling the pinch in its supply chain: Having raised prices last year, the company recently announced more increases across all its products due in part to soaring ingredient costs.