It’s that time of the year when even just looking at another piece of chocolate runs the risk of making you feel slightly queasy. But our insatiable appetite for the sweet treat coupled with predicted temperature rises due to climate change could mean that we might run out of chocolate within just three decades if nothing is done to prevent it.
It is thought that if the global average temperature increases by just 2.1°C (3.8°F), which is predicted to happen by 2050 if we do not drastically cut our carbon emissions, the amount of chocolate being produced will crash. This is because the cacao plants from which chocolate is derived will struggle to survive in West Africa, which supplies most of the world’s chocolate.
A warming climate will not actually directly harm the cocoa trees, as it will coffee plants (which are also set to be decimated by rising temperatures), shown by the fact that the trees are already grown in warmer regions right now. Instead, it is thought that the danger to chocolate production comes from West Africa effectively drying out.
As the mercury creeps ever upwards, it is expected that across West Africa more water will be squeezed out of the soil and the plants. The problem here is that this drying out is not going to be met with an increase in rainfall to counteract it, meaning that large patches of currently fertile land will become unusable.
Research carried out over the past few years has shown that by 2050, around 90 percent of current agricultural land will become less suitable for growing cocoa. It also shows that the best patches of farmland will be at higher elevations, with the prime altitude expected to increase from around 10-250 meters (350-800 feet) to around 450-500 meters (1,500-1,600 feet). Needless to say, if temperatures continue to rise, then the best land will be pushed even further up the slopes, and the area available shrink even further.
Unfortunately, many of the hilly regions that are set to show improved cultivation conditions are also already protected areas. A report earlier this year showed how an increase in demand for cocoa, largely due to burgeoning markets in growing economies such as Russia and China, has led to farmers who live surrounding protected forests encroaching on these wild spaces and converting the parks to farmland.
These problems are not insurmountable. One idea is to selectively breed more drought-resistant cacao plants, while another is looking into a technique known as cabruca, which involves planting taller native trees over the cacao, providing them with shade and increasing the humidity on the forest floor.
Either way, it looks likely that for us to continue gorging ourselves on sweet, sweet chocolate, the industry will have to radically change.