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February 26, 2012

Climate change effects on West African cocoa may be coming true much earlier than predicted

A study conducted by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) that was released in September 2011 predicted that in 20 years time climate change could result in conditions that could seriously jeopardize cocoa cultivation in two key growing countries, Ghana and Ivory Coast, which account for more than 50% of global production.

Among other things, the study hypothesized that “an expected annual temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius by 2050 will leave many of West Africa’s cocoa-producing areas too hot for chocolate.” But it warned that as early as 2030, when annual temperatures are expected to have gone up by one degree Celsius, many of today’s main cocoa-growing areas could be unsuitable for the crop.

The report then went on to suggest a number of coping strategies.

At the time of the report’s release, many people found it somewhat alarmist. Ghana’s Cocoboard was reported to have downplayed it, saying it was confident it had things well in hand for a climate change eventuality.

Yet less than six months after the release of the CIAT report, many of the worrying climate change events which were predicted for many years hence seem to have already hit some of the key cocoa-growing areas, especially in Ivory Coast.

While Ghana is celebrating having produced more than a million tonnes of cocoa in 2011, Ivory Coast’s present cocoa-growing season has been plagued by late-starting and erratic rains with long in-season dry spells that are expected to result in a harvest 8% lower than that of 2011.

It could be a downward blip that could be compensated for by good seasons in coming years> But the signs suggest that it would be prudent to begin to make preparation for the future with the assumption that this year’s unusual-for-Ivory Coast climate is a sign of things to come. It may turn out that the CIAT prediction of a significant climate effect on cocoa harvest by 2030 was not alarmist, but actually optimistic.

Cocoa is so important to the economies of Ghana and Ivory Coast that there is understandable resistance to contemplating a future in which it has a much reduced role, especially when there are no obvious cash crop alternatives to take its place. Besides, it is also tempting to dismiss Ivory Coast’s poorer than normal season as a localized event; especially since rain seasons have been largely normal in cocoa-growing regions of Ghana and Nigeria.

Yet examples from elsewhere in Africa point to adaptation needing to be done with even more urgency than even the experts have warned was necessary.

If the economies of Ghana and Ivory Coast are too dependent on cocoa as a cash crop, many countries in eastern and southern Africa are too reliant on maize as a staple crop. To an even more alarming extent than cocoa in West Africa, these regions have failed to heed the yearly signs that maize-growing is already becoming increasingly unsustainable over an ever-increasing proportion of their climatological zone. The various strategies currently employed to deal with this are unlikely to completely bridge the gap between rising maize needs and declining production.

Alternatives to maize will have to be sought, difficult to fathom or accept as that reality is for many people in these maize-obsessed regions. During Malawi, Zambia and South Africa’s recent string of maize ‘bumper harvests,’ the very suggestion that a future of reduced importance for maize may need to be urgently thought about would have seemed crazy. It probably still does, even as these three countries and several others contemplate possible maize deficits in the next few months. But ready or not, that is a reality that all these countries are going to have to face, perhaps not just ‘soon,’ but now.

Similarly, the reduced Ivorian cocoa harvest is probably a more realistic base from which to think about the crop’s future in West Africa than Ghana’s record harvest in 2011.

All three major West African cocoa-growing countries are taking steps to replace their aging cocoa bushes with newer, ‘improved’ stocks. This has long-needed to be done and will address some of the challenges of declining intrinsic productivity. But like GM maize in the increasingly-unsuitable parts of eastern and southern Africa, this may slightly postpone the day of reckoning for the cultivation of these crops, but not put it off indefinitely.

The problem is these are all approaching realities that no one wants to hear or think about.

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