Cocoa beans. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Andy Jarvis, Peter Laderach and Mark Lundy were co-authors of this op-ed, which was originally posted on Medium.

A Valentine’s Day without chocolate? To many people, this is unthinkable.

So, it’s understandable if some might have felt panic when news came out before we hit the New Year that chocolate is on course toward extinction in just three decades all because of climate change.

But fear not. As scientists working to help save cocoa in West Africa — the region that grows the crop the most — and the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers who depend on it, we can safely say that everyone will very likely still celebrate Valentine’s Day 30 years down the road with the beloved confectionary.

It is true that climate change will radically affect cocoa farming in Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together supply around two-thirds of cocoa worldwide. As per the findings of a study done a few years ago by a co-author of this commentary, 90 percent of areas now used for cocoa farming will become less suitable by 2050.

But being less suitable doesn’t mean extinction. It does mean that action needs to be taken. The real threat is not climate change but that many underestimate the herculean task of reshaping an entire sector. Given that cocoa is a perennial tree crop, it takes a lot of time to adapt the crops.

To avoid the enormous risk from climate change, three things need to happen.

First, because risks from climate change are site-specific, we need to understand the different zones of cocoa production, their climatic characteristics, and the potential impact of climate change for these zones, as well as raise attention to this issue so farmers and cocoa industry players know and can be ready for the threats that they are up against.

One impact that our research shows in West Africa is that wet areas will become wetter and dry areas will become drier. These changes will prompt the emergence of new or different pests and diseases that destroy cocoa plants. Farmers today could be dealing with the black pod disease, but their current methods may not work well on mirids, which tend to proliferate in areas under more heat. Understanding the future challenges will help us start to identify the solutions to such problems before they become critical.

Second, we need to identify agricultural practices that will allow farmers to improve their yields while adapting to climate change and hopefully also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These practices are known as climate-smart agriculture.

But given that most of those who grow cocoa in West Africa are smallholder farmers, they would need information, training and incentives to adopt those practices. High adoption rates can be achieved by co-designing them in consultation with farmers and local leaders.

Together with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and sustainability certifier Rainforest Alliance, we’ve developed training materials on climate-smart agriculture techniques depending on the region and the extent of climate change impact. These materials can, for instance, guide farmers on how to proactively plan the shade cover for their farms in the coming decades.

Third, the cocoa industry needs to implement climate-smart sustainability programs with their smallholder base. The incentives for change need to flow from consumers to farmers and vice versa, and change must happen at all points in the value chain. Sustainable business is in everyone’s interest, and the right levers need to be established to promote the right change to happen.

For many cocoa industry players in West Africa, the greatest benefits will come from stopping deforestation. Cocoa production is often expanded at the expense of forest reserves. Not only is deforestation a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change, but you are losing the tree cover that also creates the agro-ecological conditions for resilient cocoa production. If cocoa industry players don’t act now to conserve forests, they will likely see their investments down the drain in the future.

If farmers in Ghana adopt climate-smart agriculture now, cocoa production levels will remain high, deforestation will stop, and soils will have regained their health in 2050. It means that 700,000 families will continue to have thriving cocoa farms, and thus will not have to go through the painful process of changing their source of livelihood due to climate change. And yes, it also means that chocolate will feature on Valentine’s Day 30 years from today.

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