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National Chocolate Day: Could climate change hurt supplies?

Oct. 28 is National Chocolate Day. Unfortunately, the universally beloved treat faces an impending shortage crisis due to unsustainable supply chain models and climate change. 

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    A squiggle is applied to each chocolate-covered caramel Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa.
    Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald
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Promoted by the National Confectioners Association, National Chocolate Day is an occasion to celebrate in 2015. But 30 years from now, that may not be the case. So go on, indulge in that Snickers bar while you can still afford it.

Due to climate change, land degradation, and unsustainable business models, an international chocolate crisis is forecast to strike the planet in as soon as 10 years. And by 2050, West Africa, the home to most of the world’s chocolate crops, will be too hot for cacao trees to survive.

All the while, according to a February report, demand is rising. In the past four decades, the amount of land for cocoa crops has already decreased by 40 percent. Soon, the $9 billion cocoa industry will suffer a supply shortage, and a Hershey's Kiss will become a luxury.

Recommended: Decadent recipes for chocolate desserts

But more important than the developed world's delectation of chocolate, the livelihood of rural farmers in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, from where 60 percent of the global cocoa supply is exported, will likely be on the line if changes aren’t made.

Most of these impoverished farmers have never tasted a bar of chocolate, but it’s their main source of income.

The report, published by the Earth Security Group, a London-based risk analysis consulting firm, says these cocoa farmers may soon be forced to switch to rubber and palm oil instead, which would pulverize the already volatile global supply chain.

As major chocolate manufacturers like Switzerland depend on West African crops, it would be in their best interest to work more intimately with the farmers to develop sustainable models and give them a much higher stake in the business.

“The combination of resource, demographic and governance pressures in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire will induce a shortage of global cocoa supplies as early as 2020,” the report says.

“Business model innovations by large companies in the chocolate market must help farmers to capture the value of the global market in order to unlock the development, citizenship and environmental outcomes that are needed.”

A similar study in 2011 supports such claims.

The International Center for Tropical Agricultural published a more climate-based report called “Africa’s Chocolate Meltdown” with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In it, researchers found that the situation for chocolate is indeed quite dire, but first and foremost for the farmers.

“Many of these farmers use their cocoa trees like ATM machines,” Dr. Peter Laderach, the report’s lead author, said in a statement. “They pick some pods and sell them to quickly raise cash for school fees or medical expenses. The trees play an absolutely critical role in rural life.”

Laderach and his team calculated that in the current climate change trajectory, the West African climate will rise by about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit each year. Hotter temperatures will threaten the growth of heat-sensitive cocoa trees as they struggle to absorb enough water.

But there are ways to salvage the dear cocoa beans, from both an economic standpoint and an agricultural one. The CIAT report recommends growing other cash crops to ensure better livelihood for farmers, as well as developing sturdier cocoa crops that will be able to withstand the hotter weather. It also suggests government policies to give the farmers a leg up in the industry.

“The good news is that the report quantifies the risks, and pinpoints particularly vulnerable areas in good time for effective action to be taken,” Laderach said. “Producers in affected areas will be protected if they are prepared to change, and if they have the knowledge, tools and institutional support to help them adapt.”

In the mean time, big chocolate companies like Nestlé have committed to to CocoaAction, a coalition that aims to facilitate partnerships among local governments, cocoa farmers, and the cocoa industry.

“It’s great that they’re focusing on sustainability, but they must now move from incremental changes to business innovation,” Earth Security Group founder Alejandro Litovsky tells the Guardian. “Companies need to reinvent their business models to put farmers at the center of the value creation process.”

All this for a single KitKat? Now, there’s something to chew on.

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