The latest victim of climate change could well be something we all take for granted. It is delicious, ubiquitous, and most people cannot think of dessert without it. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) recently released a report that states that chocolate will soon become a luxury item that few can afford.
Various reports in the past have been leading up to this same fact. Unsustainable cultivation and labor practices in West Africa (where most cocoa is grown) are often cited as reasons for decline in chocolate production.
This report however, warns that chocolate is a heat-sensitive crop and even an increase of 2.3ºC in West Africa, “will render many of the region’s cocoa-producing areas too hot for the plants that bear the fruit from which chocolate is made.” This region produces about 70% of the world’s cocoa. Earlier this year hundred of millions of trees were destroyed in an attempt to contain a virus. Areas growing cacao trees in the Amazon basin have been falling victim to fungal infections. The Mars candy company is joining USDA to sequence the cacao’s genome before the fungal blight reaches West Africa.
The world’s increasing appetite for chocolate is partially to blame, as farmers are planting cacao trees in marginal areas to satisfy demand. This leads to weaker trees which are more susceptible to disease. As farmers in Brazil start abandoning cacao farming, they take up more lucrative occupations like logging. Crops like palm-oil and rubber also have bigger financial reward than cocoa farming, which leads some farmers to burn forests for pasture and farmland and abandon them when the nutrients in the soil are used up.
Last year, the Cocoa Research Association raised similar concerns when they said that small farmers earn just 80 cents a day through cacao farming. When the trees die off, there is no incentive to replant them and wait five years for a new crop. The children of these cocoa farmers are migrating to cities instead of undertaking such hard work for such little reward. Unfortunately chocolate consumption is increasing faster than cocoa production and this is leading to unsustainable practices in the existing farms.
In several areas in Brazil and West Africa, farmers are experimenting with more sustainable practices. Certain farmers are experimenting with growing cacao trees interspersed in the rainforest – this may give less trees per acre but with lower rates of pests and better soil fertility. This will also make a cocoa farm eligible to organic licences or carbon credits, thereby boosting sales and income.
Mars Candy Company has been conducting studies to assess whether a carbon credit model will help these farmers to become more sustainable with cocoa production. This dual approach of saving rain-forests and growing organic cocoa might be the answer to increase in demand for cocoa products in the face of global warming.
Image Credit: VALE TV, Cacao Beans, Wikimedia Commons