A WELSH scientist today warns that worldwide chocolate production is under threat from the spread of virulent plant diseases.
International trade and better transport links between countries are threatening to ravage crops of the vital chocolate-making material cacao, according to Dr Gareth Griffith of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
The exotically-named Witches' Broom Disease and Frosty Pod have already devastated swathes of the South American plantations.
And they could have far reaching effects around the world, with concerns already being expressed about possible price rises among Welsh chocolate producers.
Penny Hawley of the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Association - which represents manufacturing giants such as Cadbury's - expressed concern about the disease.
"It does need to be taken seriously," she said, "and we're always worried about it - there was a very serious outbreak in Brazil that means the country is now a net importer of chocolate.
"But we currently have stringent measures in place and they will remain so.
"Witches' Broom is one of the diseases that affects cacao; we've known about this for many years and it's a well-understood and managed risk.
"The industry funds hundreds of thousands of pounds of research to look for resistant strains and we have extremely strict quarantine procedures."
In Surinam, Ecuador and Trinidad the diseases' deadly arrival halved cocoa production within a decade.
Now Dr Griffith is warning hitherto uninfected areas could succumb because of increasing links between South America and other cacao-growing areas such as Africa.
Writing in the summer edition of Biologist magazine, published today, he said if this were to happen, world chocolate production could fall dramatically.
Philip Evans, company secretary of OP Chocolate in Merthyr Tydfil, makers of sweets such as chocolate-covered wafers, said consumers could see a price-rise if the disease took hold. But he was confident their business would not be too badly affected.
"The majority of our beans come from Africa," he said.
"There are not any foreseeable problems on the horizon.
"It's really like any diseases - there would be a knock-on effect and it would hit market prices.
"Consumers would see a general rise but in terms of the global market there are several sources we could go to."
Meanwhile, Frank Miller, manager of Caldey's chocolate factory, which has produced extra revenue for the monks of Caldey Island since the 1960s, said, "It could be quite dramatic and, naturally, it could impact on price.
"Chocolate is price-sensitive, it's a luxury product and obviously it's one that people enjoy.
"As in any product, it is sensitive to the weather and various issues, and as with any market it is subject to supply and demand and could affect everybody concerned."
Dr Griffith last night emphasised the need to carry out a risk assessment to ensure the disease did not cross the Atlantic.
He added, "The difficulty scientists working for these companies have is shareholders are looking at the money involved.
"These diseases don't strike overnight."
Dr Griffith points to the spread of other fungal pathogens such as sudden oak death as highlighting the fact global trade is not risk-free.
And while chocolate lovers around the world may despair at the prospect, the effect of the diseases on the cacao-growing communities themselves has already been devastating.
According to Dr Griffith, "accidental assistance" from humans has been instrumental in the spread of the disease around South America in the past 15 years.
He says the rapid spread of the disease from Surinam to Ecuador and Trinidad in the early 20th century was probably due to transport of superficially healthy but infected cacao pods.
"In the 1970s, extensive deforestation and oil exploration in Amazonian Ecuador, encouraged farmers to migrate across the Andes, bringing the disease with them," he added.
"Similar developments in Brazil led to the establishment of cacao plantations in Amazonia and the inevitable occurrence of the disease."