A global chocolate shortage? Scientists race to beat the threat from climate change

While kids are gearing up for Halloween, scientists like Brigitte Laliberté are working to help cocoa farmers protect their crops from disease and the affects of climate change.

Scientists are working to prevent a global chocolate shortage brought on by climate change

A worker holds cocoa pods at a cocoa processing plant. (EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty Images)

In stores across Canada, stacks of the humble chocolate bar sit on the shelves, ready to be given away to eager trick-or-treaters.

But that may not always be the case. As global climate change intensifies, the cocoa trees behind your favourite chocolate bars face a growing threat from drought and disease.

Brigitte Laliberté, an expert on cocoa's genetic resources with Bioversity International, says the situation is urgent — especially for farmers who are seeing the situation worsen season by season.

"There is no doubt that there has to be adaptability and a change happening in some of the varieties [of cocoa] grown in different parts [of the world], and that requires global cooperation," Laliberté tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Laliberté believes increasing the genetic diversity of cocoa crops will be key to solving many of the challenges facing the chocolate industry today.

A researcher a diseased cacao pod at the greenhouse of the Tropical Agriculture Research and Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba, Costa Rica. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)


Global production requires global diversity

Cocoa originates from the hot, humid rainforests of the Amazon basin. But today, most of the cocoa used in treats like chocolate bars is grown in West African countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where drought has become a regular concern.

Back in 2010, Ghana sold more than $1.6 billion US worth of cocoa beans, according to the Forum for Agricultural Risk Management in Development

One farmer from the Ivory Coast told Reuters back in March: "It's a drought here. The trees are not doing well and there is practically no fruit on the plantations."

The other concern, disease, has long been a risk for cocoa farmers. Once a pest or disease latches onto a specific breed of cocoa tree, an entire farming region can be in danger.

In 1970, a fungus so thoroughly devastated the cocoa farming industry in Costa Rica that it has yet to recover.

A farmer prepares to cut cocoa pods at a cocoa farm in Agboville, Ivory Coast. 70 per cent of the world's cocoa is produced in West Africa. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

Part of the issue is that although there are many varieties of this crop, only a few are farmed in the high-production region known as the cocoa belt. The others remain in South America.

Laliberté says although scientists are hard at work finding more drought-resistant and more pest-resistant varieties, the research requires more funding to see new breeds put into production on farms across the Atlantic ocean.

"The more diversity you inject, the better your chances," says Laliberté. "Countries have to work together [...] to share diversity and see what works in different regions."

Raw cocoa beans are fermented and dried as part of the chocolate production process. (Flickr / Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)


A long-term challenge

Even if farmers wanted to try testing new seeds, cocoa trees can't be switched out over a year or two, Laliberté says. These crops are a long-term investment.

"If you're a maize grower or you're a rice grower, you can change the variety the following year. You can adapt," Laliberté says. 

"When you grow a tree, you adopt the tree for 30 years." 

Cocoa trees take three to five years to bear fruit on average, although new varieties are speeding up that process to two to three years.

There's also resistance to the kind of international cooperation Laliberté is calling for, since many countries are reluctant to share the unique crops that their local farmers have spent generations cultivating.

People work at a cocoa sorting centre in Sobre, Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

One sign for hope is that many of these farming communities have incentives to share not just cocoa, but multiple crops, Laliberté says.

She points to coffee as another crop whose biodiversity is shared across borders. Colombian coffee, which is also at risk from climate change, originates in Ethiopia. 

Despite these challenges, Laliberté say you don't need to give those Halloween candy bars a second look. Right now, the best thing you can do for the industry is to eat it.

"You should just enjoy your chocolate," says Laliberté. "The more cocoa the better." 

To hear the full interview with Brigitte Laliberté, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.