RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And not it to start a panic, but the world is running low on chocolate. Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is in short supply. There is a potential workaround. Though if you're a chocolate lover, you might not like it. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money team has more.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: I'm walking through a cocoa plantation in southern Ecuador. It looks more like a forest than a farm. Trees tower above 40 feet high.
SERGIO CEDENO: I almost cry when I see these trees.
SMITH: Sergio Cedeno is a cocoa farmer. This farm belongs to his friends, and he tells me these trees are very sick. He points out the cocoa pods growing along the trunks. Normally they're bright yellow and the size of a Nerf football. These are shriveled, black things. A fungus called witch's broom is to blame.
They're just falling off the trees almost.
CEDENO: All are sick, all are sick, witch's broom, witch's broom.
SMITH: Yeah, that's a lot of dead plants.
CEDENO: It's a disaster.
SMITH: Cedeno is a fifth-generation cocoa farmer. When he was a kid, Ecuadorian cocoa was world-famous. Cocoa farmers were the economic kings of the country. But then, witch's broom arrived in Ecuador and devastated the cocoa farms.
CEDENO: The bank take the farm, and the family was in crisis - all Ecuador was in crisis.
SMITH: Most people stopped growing cocoa. But Cedeno's family kept at it on what was left of their farm. And then one day, Homero Castro, a plant scientist from the North of Ecuador, showed up in Naranjal, where Cedeno lived.
Tell me the story of Homero Castro. Was he...
CEDENO: We call him Homerito because he was so short.
SMITH: How tall was he? Was he taller than I am?
CEDENO: Like this.
SMITH: Oh, he was like 4 feet tall.
SMITH: Homerito became a family friend.
CEDENO: Every afternoon he went to the house there, always joking, always talking about cocoa.
SMITH: Homerito said he wanted to create a new cocoa tree, immune to witch's broom, hyper-productive. He traveled to Africa, the Caribbean, the Amazon collecting different kinds of cocoa plants and crossbreeding them.
CEDENO: For many years, crossing this variety with this variety again, again, again.
SMITH: Twelve years he did this.
CEDENO: And then bingo.
SMITH: Homerito had created his super tree. He grew the first ones on Cedeno's farm. I follow Cedeno through rows and rows of overgrown trees.
CEDENO: This is an original tree planted by Homero Castro, that tree.
SMITH: Where the traditional cocoa trees are tall and elegant, this is short and squat. It's also loaded with cocoa pods. They're blood red, and they're huge. They're bigger than my head.
CEDENO: It's very old - 46 years old. But it's still producing.
SMITH: Witch's broom hasn't touched it. Homero Castro named the new plant after himself and the city where he lived - Coleccion Castro Naranjal - CCN. He added the number 51 because that's how many tries it took him to get it right - CCN-51. Looking at this tree 46 years ago, a teenage Cedeno thought this could make cocoa a viable crop again. He bought his own land and planted the whole place with CCN-51. It paid off. The new trees produced 10 times the amount of cocoa normal trees did - 10 times. People from all over the world came to see Cedeno's farm.
CEDENO: People from Hershey, from Mars, from Cadbury, they say this is incredible. This is the paradise of cocoa. When they see, they believe.
SMITH: But when they taste, there's a problem.
GARY GUITTARD: I always kind of described it as a very kind of rusty nails sourness.
SMITH: Rusty nails?
GUITTARD: Yeah, yeah. That was kind of my description.
SMITH: Gary Guittard is the owner of Guittard Chocolate.
GUITTARD: You can't believe how bad it was. I mean, seriously - I mean, it just wasn't usable by anybody, you know, not even in a blend.
SMITH: Traditional Ecuadorian cocoa might be fussy and disease-prone, but it's delicious. Chocolate makers were horrified by CCN-51's flavor. They wouldn't buy it. In 1988, Homero Castro died in a car accident. As far as he knew, he had failed. And the story of CCN-51 might have ended there, but two big things happened. First, about five years ago, farmers figured out how to improve the taste. They started fermenting the beans in burlap sacks.
CEDENO: Keep the cocoa here for three days, cover it.
SMITH: Cedeno shows me rows of burlap sacks under a large tarp. He opens one. I put my hand down on the beans.
Oh, my gosh, it's really warm.
CEDENO: That's right. It's warm.
SMITH: This process kind of burns the horrible taste out of the beans. The result is fine, kind of bland. And chocolate makers realized maybe kind of bland was OK. After all, most of the chocolate we eat - Snickers, Hershey bars, Rolos - taste more like sugar and vanilla than cocoa. Eduardo Marquez de la Plata is a chocolate maker in Ecuador. He bets me if I try it, I won't be able to tell. He had me do a blind taste test with 12 different kinds of chocolate. It was rough.
EDUARDO DE LA PLATA: Taste it. You like it?
SMITH: I do, yeah. It's a really, like, a light flavor.
DE LA PLATA: Welcome to the CCN world.
SMITH: Was that CCN-51?
DE LA PLATA: Yeah.
SMITH: It tastes very familiar.
This moment is what keeps fine chocolate maker Gary Guittard up at night.
GUITTARD: My fear is incremental degradation. When it was 5 percent of the product, nobody knew; then it became 10 percent; then it became 15; then it was 20. It'll be slow, and they won't notice the difference.
SMITH: CCN-51 now makes up more than half the cocoa being produced by Ecuador. It's cropped up in Peru, Brazil and Indonesia. Cedeno has no qualms about this. He watched cocoa farmers go from economic kings to barely having enough to eat.
CEDENO: I am romantic because I like the history, but this is a business. This is not romantic.
SMITH: Cedeno says CCN-51 is the future of cocoa. He doesn't think the taste needs to change. As long as demand for cocoa keeps rising, our taste will have to change instead. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.