The chocolate industry needs to provide more financial support to cocoa growers in Ghana to guarantee future supplies from the west African state, leading academics and conservationists have claimed.

The future of cocoa farming in Ghana - a key source of cocoa for multinational chocolate makers like Cadbury - is under threat from unsustainable farming practices, while the prospect of falling earnings is discouraging farmers from cultivating the bean.

The growth in logging and the burgeoning trade in timber is endangering the rainforest and affecting rainfall in Ghana, hitting cocoa farming and the country's wider agriculture sector, Dr John Mason, CEO of the Nature Conservation Research Centre in Ghana, said.

"The industry in west Africa is not at a good moment in time," he warned.

However, Dr Mason claimed unsustainable farming methods developed by cocoa farmers in Ghana were also hurting the country's rainforest. Cocoa farmers, encouraged by the fact that more sunlight provides a greater yield of cocoa pods, are removing the tree cover from their farms.

Dr Mason - and Professor Ken Norris of Reading University - said cocoa farmers were increasingly reducing or completely removing the "canopy" of trees from their farms to increase the level of sunlight hitting their cocoa trees - and contributing to climate change at a local level.

"Cocoa has been - and continues to be - a significant driver of deforestation," Dr Mason told a conference at the Speciality Chocolate Fair at London's Olympia yesterday (7 September).

Professor Norris argued that, with financial help from the chocolate sector, cocoa farmers could be encouraged to keep their levels of canopy, help mitigate local climate change and "trade" the extra carbon dioxide "stored" in their farms by selling on "carbon credits".

"If we were to be able to restore tree canopy in farms, we would get a long-term, sustainable system and we would also be able to store a large amount of carbon," he said.

The process of developing a system of trading carbon credits is underway but Professor Norris admitted all involved were starting from a "very low base".

However, he added: "It's well past being a back-of-the envelope or pub beer mat idea now. There is a growing interest from the chocolate industry in buying these credits."

Professor Norris said the initiative was still looking for "about US$4m" in funding but had received contributions from the likes of Divine Chocolate.

Dr Mason and Professor Norris were talking at the launch of Source Trust, a not-for-profit cocoa buying scheme that plans to charge more per tonne to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and their communities.

Manufacturers including Lindt, Ferrero and Kraft Foods, are already "affiliated partners" of Source Trust, the organisation said.