It will take every tool in the box to combat the effect of climate change on cocoa production, warn industry experts following the publication of research into the impact of rising temperatures on farmers in West Africa.
“There is no single solution to addressing cocoa productivity and climate change,” said Bill Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), which brings together companies, governments, NGOs and farmers.
“A combination of long-term applied research, coupled with practical farmer outreach and extension is needed in order to ensure that cocoa farmers prosper and consumers continue to enjoy chocolate.”
Smallholder farmers in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire today produce around half the world’s cocoa. But research from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) revealed that an expected temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celcius by 2050 will leave many of West Africa's cocoa-producing areas too hot for chocolate.
The CIAT team predicts that production in many areas could start to decline as early as 2030, as average temperatures increase by 1 degree Celcius.
Warmer conditions mean the heat-sensitive cocoa trees will struggle to get enough water during the growing season, curtailing the development of cocoa pods. Trees could also struggle as the region's dry season becomes increasingly intense.
Solutions to help farmers cope range from encouraging good practice to developing new cocoa varieties that are disease and drought-resistant.
“In 2010, there were breakthroughs on mapping the cocoa genome by cocoa research groups. This achievement will allow researchers to breed select cocoa trees at a more accelerated pace. Most of the research efforts to date have not been focused on drought tolerance, although there are some new efforts now underway to do so,” Guyton told ConfectioneryNews.com
He added that farmers are already receiving higher-yielding seedlings through initiatives such as the WCF’s Cocoa Livelihoods Program.
Farmers are also being encouraged to plant fast-growing fruit trees such as banana and papaya and preserve high-canopy trees to provide shade protection. For example, all farms certified by sustainability organisation UTZ-Certified must have 18 shade trees per hectare.
Rising temperatures effectively raise the altitude at which ideal cocoa growing conditions can be found, according to CIAT, and this presents a danger of deforestation if farmers are forced to move into new areas.
“As UTZ Certified we encourage diversification of crops on existing lands. Going to new lands is very risky since it often means deforestation, which for climate change reasons has to be avoided at all costs,” a UTZ spokeswoman told this publication. “This risk exists. The response should be using standards initiatives, with good agricultural practices and links to the market.”
The Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) sought to play down the CIAT research.
COCOBOD spokesman Kwesi Amenya told Ghanaian publication the Daily Graphic that "the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRlG) has already started developing cocoa plants that are drought-resistant as mitigations against some of these weather changes."