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October 03, 2011

Crop diversification should be part of dealing with climate change threat to West African cocoa

Climate change may make many parts of West Africa too hot for the growing of cocoa by the year 2050, according to a new report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The report predicts that the region will experience a one degree Celcius temperature increase by 2030, going up to 2.3 degrees by 2050.

More than 50% of global cocoa is grown by small holder farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana, with Nigeria also being an important producer.

According to the report, ''Warmer conditions mean the heat-sensitive cocoa trees will struggle to get enough water during the growing season, curtailing the development of cocoa pods, containing the prized cocoa bean – the key ingredient in chocolate production. The trees are also expected to struggle as the region’s dry season becomes increasingly intense.''

Some of these effects are already being seen in marginal cocoa-growing areas, and are expected to spread.

Peter Laderach, the report’s lead author, is quoted as saying, ''These findings are severe but preparation is the name of the game. There is a lot that farmers, governments, scientists – and key players in the cocoa supply chains – can do to help protect and improve cocoa production. But these measures need to be implemented very quickly.”

Among those suggested measures are investments in improved irrigation systems, and scientific research into more heat-tolerant cocoa plant varieties. The report also predicts that the ideal cocoa growing areas will shift to higher altitudes, to compensate for the higher temperatures. However, Laderach points out that west Africa is mostly flat, making this is a limited solution.

Failure to save the cocoa industry would have devastating consequences because of its key role in the lives of farmers and the economies of the major growing countries.  

Africa has recently had experience with other once-dominant crops whose competitiveness has been lost or severely challenged, with disastrous results.

In many countries that grew cotton, the sector  maintains just a small portion of its former glory. Among the reasons are subsidies for cotton growers in major growing countries like the US, China and Brazil as well as lower productivity. Countries in southern and eastern Africa that are suitable for  growing a variety of crops shifted their emphasis to other crops, though the hotter, drier parts that were particularly suitable for cotton often did not find an alternative anywhere as lucrative. 

However, African cotton's problems are close to being perpetual crises in the West African countries where cotton is the main or a major cash crop: Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad and Niger. In these hot, arid Sahelian countries where cotton is as important to the economies as cocoa is to Ivory Coast or Ghana, there is no quick or obvious answer to the decline of the sector. Efforts to improve productivity (eg GM cotton) or seek alternative markets (e.g. organic cotton) are underway, but it is far from clear that they will significantly address the structural problems faced by cotton farming in West Africa.Yet there are no readily, easily available alternative 'cash crops' to cotton in these countries. This may be a slowly unfolding social and economic disaster unfolding disaster before us that no one has yet suggested a viable solution to.

In the relatively few countries that grow it, vanilla was at one time a type of 'white gold' like cotton once was in many others. Madagascar dominated the world vanilla market and sought to maintain that lead position by manipulating production levels to keep volumes produced and exported under control, and to therefore keep global demand and prices high. 

Madagascar's restricted vanilla exports made it possible for competitors with higher prices to find buyers and erode its market share. The overall high world prices for vanilla also kept demand lower than it might have been if the sector were fully 'free.' Madagascar's growing vanilla stocks and declining global position eventually contributed to a decline of prices and the sector, affecting growers in Uganda and other countries that had joined the once-lucrative vanilla bandwagon. Madagascar then instituted a comprehensive reform
of the vanilla sector, but it has never achieved the height of its peak in the 1980s. As in many economies that mainly depend on one or a few commodities, there were no easy alternatives for devastated vanilla farmers to turn to for their livelihood.

Then there is Africa's coming maize disaster, based on the unsustainable over-dependence of many countries on this increasingly Africa-unsuitable crop. If the CIAT cocoa projection has come as a shock, that cannot be said for climate change's effects on the growing of maize. For years African farmers have struggled to maintain already low maize yields. In addition to declining soil fertility has been added the reality of an increasingly maize-unfriendly climate.   

There is a scramble by different interest groups to sell their idea as the answer to this huge, continent-wide calamity-in-development. GM and hybrid maize of various claimed advantages (faster maturing, water efficient, etc) are the mix of solutions being offered. But regardless of how well any or all of these much hyped solutions work according to the parameter set by the promoters who have so much invested in them, no one is able to even guess if they will be up to the task of compensating for climate change-caused reductions in maize growing areas.

If that decline in maize-suitable areas is significant and cannot be offset by higher yields in the remaining maize-suitable areas, maize-preferring Africans will have to find something or other starch crops to 'prefer.' Experience over many previous instances of maize shortages all over the continent suggests that large-scale importation of maize is simply not a realistic solution.

The work of thinking of, trying and beginning to market those probably inevitably needed maize alternatives is too important to be left until the crisis gets much worse. It should start now.

A similar diversification urgency may be called for in response to the warnings about the likely effects of climate change on growing cocoa in West Africa. As the examples given here illustrate, it is far from certain that efforts to ''protect and improve cocoa production'' will be successful. Apart from the many technical, capacity and many other problems that plague African agriculture in general, no one can accurately predict the exact levels of the forecast temperature changes, nor their effects on the ability to cultivate cocoa.If both are more severe than predicted, the impact would be extremely serious for the global chocolate industry, but catastrophic for the countries and farmers affected. The examples of other once lucrative crops in other parts of Africa show, however, that those catastrophic effects may be far from easy to avoid.

Cocoa was an introduced cash crop that unlike many others has more or less consistently had an assured global market and good reasonably good returns even for the farmers who are at the bottom of the supply chain in terms of benefit per effort. It would be far from easy to find a crop with anywhere near the same combination of economic qualities. Yet if cocoa climate change-coping strategies in West Africa do not also at least include diversification away from over-reliance on this so far successful crop, economic disasters that have taken place elsewhere when the main cash crop collapses can be predicted.

African Agriculture   

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