Chocolate was once the drink of Mayan and Aztec kings. Now a cocoa shortage may make chocolate an exclusive luxury again.

Chocolate could become as rare as caviar, said John Mason of the Ghana-based Nature Conservation Research Council. Which means chocolate treats may become unaffordable for the average person.

The price of cocoa, the raw ingredient for chocolate, has been skyrocketing in international markets. Demand for chocolate, especially for dark chocolate which uses more cocoa, has helped fuel price increases.

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But unfair trade and environmental problems have resulted in supply not keeping pace with demand. West Africa leads the world in cocoa production. But the profits don't come back to many of the farmers there, and that is one of the main causes of the shortage.

In the Ivory Coast, cocoa farmers often earn less than $1 a day, and in many cases the land they farm has lost its fertility, said Tony Lass, chairman of the Cocoa Research Association in the UK Independent. Ivory Coast farmers are leaving behind unprofitable, failing cocoa orchards for the cities.

But offering fair prices to farmers may avert the chocolate shortage. In Ghana, workers' cooperatives receive fair trade prices for the cocoa they produce. The farmers are staying on the land and keeping up production, said Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Ghanaian chocolate manufacturer, Divine Chocolate, in the UK Independent. A cooperative of 45,000 cocoa farmers owns 45 percent of Divine Chocolate.

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Environmental destruction and unsustainable land use also contribute to the cocoa crisis. Cocoa trees are originally from the rainforests of the Americas. They naturally live for up to a century in the shady understory of biodiverse forests.

But modern cultivation techniques clear the forest and plant only cocoa trees in full sun. Under these conditions the trees live only 30 years or less. The land quickly loses it's fertility. The trees die, and the farmers must cut down new patches of forest.

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But some farmers plant cocoa under shade trees, increasing the life span of the cocoa trees. Insect predators living in the mixed species plantations reduce pest damage. The spread of cocoa tree specific diseases is also slowed. But the trees grow slower and produce less in the short term.

Solutions exist to stop the chocolate shortage. But it will require candy makers to share more of their profits with cocoa farmers. And many farmers will have to change the way they grow cocoa.

Or else chocolate may become the food of kings yet again.

PHOTO: The pods of the cocoa tree, where chocolate comes from; Wikimedia Commons