That melt-in-your-mouth chocolate egg you savored this Easter might face a different kind of meltdown in future, researchers warn in a new study. 

Temperatures in West Africa’s cocoa belt – supplying 70 percent of the world’s cocoa, the raw ingredient in chocolate – are going to get hotter.

Dry spells should decrease – a bit of respite for the drought-sensitive crop. But cocoa doesn’t strike so lucky when it comes to beating the heat.

“Essentially, the dry zone from the Sahara is pushing down cocoa-growing areas to the coast,” says Peter Läderach, leader of the Climate Change Program at CIAT and co-author of the study.

“In future, maximum temperatures on the cocoa belt in the dry season could approach the limits of tolerance for cocoa. In general, what our maps show is that areas under cocoa production are going to shrink.”

Cocoa “migration”

Mapping farming areas between Sierra Leone and Cameroon, researchers overlaid data for 2050 climate projections, to discover that heat will be more of a problem for the two million cocoa farmers in West Africa – and millions of chocoholics around the world – than previously thought.

If cocoa production needs to “migrate” south, west and east of the current West Africa cocoa belt to avoid meltdown, it could trigger a wave of deforestation, researchers warn – specifically in Liberia, Cameroon and possibly the Congo basin.

Unless, that is, urgent measures are taken to adapt at all levels. Breeders will need to take higher temperatures into account to help cocoa beat the heat, as well as deal with drought and disease.

Smallholder farmers – the majority producers in West Africa – will need local advice: in drier and hotter parts of the belt, cocoa should be shaded by other trees, to protect it from higher temperatures. They will need incentives to intensify production in areas where cocoa can beat the heat – and advice about switching to other crops in areas where it can’t.

And at national, regional and policy level, agricultural and forestry policies and laws will be needed to prevent forest clearing for cocoa production, and ensure new cocoa is grown on already deforested land, not on virgin forest.

Gaining powerful insight

The maps can be used to help partners gain more insight into regional impacts of climate change. Rainforest Alliance for example, expects to use the results to help inform farmers which climate-smart practices they can use on their farm.

Martin Noponen, senior manager of Rainforest Alliance’s climate program, said the maps help address risks at farm-level and along the value chain, making sure consumers can support climate-smart, verified products.

Elizabeth Teague, Environmental Performance Officer at the agricultural impact investor Root Capital, noted that the climate maps help transform scary projections into actionable information for investors.

“These maps help us gain more insight into what the big picture looks like – and think about how to be more proactive in helping cocoa cooperatives and their farmers adapt,” she said. For example, by providing loans to businesses whose suppliers want to buy shade trees to ‘climate-proof’ their farm, but can’t afford the upfront costs.

Top-down or bottom-up?

A complimentary study highlights that projected impacts of climate change on the cocoa belt will vary within and among countries. Varying climates across the region require a more nuanced, local approach, as impacts will differ.

The most vulnerable cocoa producing areas in the West Africa belt, authors note, are likely to be forest-savanna areas of Nigeria and eastern Côte d’Ivoire, while parts of Cameroon, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia might be better off.

But the fire needs to be doused from all angles. While climate change mitigation is generally viewed as a global activity, adaptation is usually considered a local process. To move from local crisis management to sustainable national and regional roadmaps, climate change needs to be tackled at regional level too.

The bigger picture

Countries with more favorable climate trajectories, like Liberia and Cameroon, could become “relative winners” of projected climate changes, taking over market space as other countries are forced to switch to crops more capable of dealing with increased temperatures.

A regional approach could mean that if production is slashed in Nigeria, for example, farmers might be compensated by gains in parts of Liberia. Countries and companies could channel cocoa investment and intensification in the most promising areas, while helping other farmers shift to alternative crops.

That is still some way off, and while more work needs to be done to provide recommendations to farmers at local level and engage the private sector in solutions, many private companies are already engaged and interested in ensuring their supply of chocolate doesn’t literally melt.

This work was implemented by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). It builds on previous work supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Big ideas: taking this research further

  • This research can be taken further, by building on scaling CSA practices through private sector, climate finance entities and governments
  • Testing CSA in the field
  • Targeting CSA to farmer typologies: not every technology is suited for every farmer
  • Gauging potential impacts on quality, yield and pest and disease

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