Climate change could destroy West Africa's cocoa farms, disrupting domestic and international economies, experts say.

By 2060, more than half of the cocoa-producing countries in the region may be too hot to grow the crop, according to a report released by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. If scientists can't engineer a drought-resistant cocoa tree, the international market will see a significant increase in prices, and West African nations may experience a spike in poverty, drug trafficking and food riots.

"Hopefully, Ghana or West Africa is able to adapt to climate change to maintain their cocoa production," said Peter Laderach, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. "People will continue eating chocolate. If they don't produce it, someone else will."

Worldwide, the cocoa industry is a $5.1 billion market, with West Africa growing more than half of the 3 million tons sold annually, according to the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF). Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two largest producers, but rising temperatures will make it difficult for these countries to hold on to that lead.

The cocoa industry is already reporting an estimated 1.5 million ton shortage by 2020. And El Niño weather patterns forecast for later this year could exacerbate the issue, as severe weather alters growing patterns, according to Coffee and Cocoa International, an industry publication.

While supply decreases, global demand is projected to rise. The United States and Europe have always been large buyers, but now that China and South Korea are also investing in cocoa products, market competition will only intensify, said Mbalo Ndiaye, the director of the WCF's West Africa office.

Such scarcity has had a profound effect on industry pricing. In 2000, cocoa cost $714 per ton, but by the spring of 2011, it was at a high of $3,775 per ton, according to Coffee and Cocoa International. Higher prices don't necessarily trickle down to farmers, whose abject poverty prevents them from making long-term plans to compensate for increased temperatures.

"We're dealing with some of the poorest countries in the world ... where there's political instability," said Elan Emanuel, a supply chain manager at Fair Trade USA. "Climate change is the least of their worries."

Problem for big companies and small farmers
Yet it's one of the main issues for manufacturers worldwide. Chocolate is used in a variety of products; lotions, body washes and even cosmetics contain traces of the bean. It's also a culturally significant crop for many countries. About 5.5 million cocoa farmers rely on the business for their livelihoods, passing down small family farms from generation to generation, Ndiaye said.

"We've been growing cocoa for years," he added. "It dated back from the colonial era."

However, cocoa didn't begin as a West African tradition. According to the WCF, it was the Mayans in South America who started the trend, using cocoa in rituals and assigning it a monetary value. Ancient texts show that a horse could be purchased with just 10 beans.

When the Spaniards conquered the Western world, Mayan infatuation with the bean jumped the Atlantic Ocean and spread throughout Europe. By the 18th century, countries around the globe wanted a taste of "theobroma cacao," or "food of the gods."

The bean hasn't lost its popularity, which is why conservationists are working to improve farming conditions in West Africa. Organizations have launched programs that teach landowners how to shade their cocoa trees and lay down ground cover to increase soil moisture. However, these methods will have only a minimal cooling impact. In the long run, no amount of simple adaptation methods will be exceptionally effective against rising temperatures.

The optimum altitude for cocoa is 300 to 800 feet above sea level, which will increase to 1,475 to 1,640 feet above sea level by 2050 due to climate change, according to a September 2011 study published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

"Long term, the farmer can't do anything," Laderach said. "You need universities, you need research."

You need drought-resistant cocoa trees, he added.

Can genetic modification come to the rescue?
Genetic engineering and selective breeding are rallying cries among conservationists, politicians and industry leaders. The international community has firmly placed its faith in science.

It's not an unfounded confidence. Researchers have achieved similar feats with the technology: cows that produce more milk, fish that thrive in freezing conditions. Temperature-resilient cocoa trees are certainly possible -- but they're not available now.

Cocoa trees require about five years of growth to reach maturity, according to the WCF. It could take the scientific community decades to produce a viable cocoa hybrid, Ndiaye said. By the time these plants pass rigorous testing, undergo mass production and are shipped to their intended recipients, it's likely that cocoa shortages will already be a problem for Mars Inc. and Nestle SA -- two of the world's largest chocolate manufacturing companies.

Scientists must also take pests and cocoa-specific diseases into account when designing the ideal cocoa tree. As temperatures rise and stress the cocoa trees, the plants become more susceptible to pathogens.

"About a third of the crop is lost each year to diseases and pests," said Bill Guyton, the president of the WCF. "When the plant is more stressed, there's more of a risk factor of diseases or pests."

Even if scientists were able to present a modified cocoa tree today, there's no guarantee West Africans would immediately benefit from the technology.

"The biggest challenge that we have is that there are so many small-scale farmers living in remote areas, so access to these farmers is a big challenge," Guyton said. "And another big problem is that very few of them are organized; less than 20 percent belong to some sort of cooperative or organization, so it makes it difficult to work with them."

Furthermore, most locals can't afford to replant -- just 1 hectare of cocoa trees costs at least $1,000, a figure that does not include fertilizer and other tools needed to care for the saplings, Ndiaye said.

Some ugly consequences
Such logistical hang-ups appear to leave West Africans unprepared for future climatic changes. And the consequences of such vulnerability are more dire than a spike in American chocolate prices.

"There've been large-scale efforts; cocoa has been used as an alternative livelihood project to wean farmers off [growing] cocaine," Emanuel said.

Take away cocoa, and agriculturalists may resort to coca, the plant base of cocaine, which could result in a variety of domestic and international complications -- drug trafficking, violence, and all the costs and resources associated with outreach and intervention.

Food riots are also likely, Ndiaye said. As the climate warms, crop yields for staples could decline. The first response from governments and businesses will be to import, he added, affecting trade balance and driving up prices.

Cocoa provides 7.5 percent of the gross domestic product in Ivory Coast and 3.4 percent of the GDP in Ghana, according to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture's study. Cocoa farmers, already strapped for cash, may not be able to afford the cost spike in food essentials.

"There would be huge implications for poverty levels in Africa; that's why it's really important to maintain cocoa in this area," Laderach said.

Regions including Asia, South America or parts of Africa that were previously too cool to grow cocoa may plant more trees and could possibly pick up the slack in the market. However, it's unlikely that they will be able to meet market demands, which are projected to increase 3 percent per year as they have for the past century, according to the WCF.

The switch to new regions will change the flavor profile of chocolate, which depends heavily on growing conditions. Such transitions are potentially worrisome for large corporations concerned about brand image and advertising.

These companies, desperate to retain their market shares, have implemented various outreach programs to help farmers, many of whom have left their rural villages in the hopes of finding better work in the cities.

"Businesses are worried about climate change," Emanuel said. "These guys are just trying to figure out what to eat for dinner at night as opposed to their livelihoods 20 years down the road."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500