We all know that climate change is affecting just about every aspect of our lives - including the chocolate we enjoy so much. But what exactly does climate change have to do with the cocoa plant and thus with our chocolate? We will get to the bottom of this connection below.
At fairafric, we are trying to make a difference in the chocolate world. This includes ensuring that cocoa farmers can live a good life at the base of it all. We ensure this with the organic premium of $600 per ton of cocoa, which is on top of the government-set cocoa price. But when there are climate-related crop failures, poor quality cocoa beans, or diseases of the cocoa tree, even a premium is no longer enough to ensure a good standard of living for the people at the beginning of our chocolate production. In this article, we will look at the consequences of climate change on the sensitive cocoa plants and thus the farmers.
The cocoa tree and its sensitivities
About 70% of the world's cocoa grows in West Africa, mainly in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. The climatic conditions there are actually ideal for cocoa cultivation: it rains a lot in the rainy seasons, in between there are dry periods with sufficient sunshine, there is high humidity and at the same time warm but not too hot temperatures all year round. Cocoa trees are very special, but also sensitive. You can read about what exactly makes them so special in our blog post about bees on cacao plantations.
The trees need very specific weather conditions to grow well and ripen the cocoa pods. As soon as the climatic balance is disturbed, for example, by excessive rainfall outside the rainy season or prolonged dry periods, the cocoa plant suffers. On the one hand, prolonged dry periods and lack of rain lead to the death of young cocoa plants, on the other, excessive rain can lead to insect and fungal infestation (G. J. Anim-Kwapong, E. B. Frimpong). Due to the sensitive nature of cacao plants, climate change has an extreme impact on cocoa farming and thus on the lives of cocoa farmers and our chocolate.
The problems caused by climate change in cocoa farming
Several problems arise in cocoa cultivation as a result of the change in climatic conditions in West Africa. The three characteristic problems are explained below.
Lower yields from the same area under cultivation and time spent
In the past, cocoa farmers could rely on their trees, which guaranteed the entire family's income if well cared for. The profits from the cocoa harvest are usually the main income of the families, from which errands, school fees and medical bills are paid. However, in recent years, farmers have increasingly had to deal with uncontrollable crop failures due to climate changes. Good care is no longer sufficient for a secure income; it depends on the weather whether the profits from the cocoa harvest are sufficient or not.
Reduction of cultivation areas
In order to get the most out of the cocoa trees despite the increasingly smaller harvest, some farmers use environmentally damaging production methods such as strong pesticides and closer planting of the plantations. This depletes the soil so much that they soon have to switch to other cultivation areas. In addition, more land is being lost in regions where there is no longer enough rainfall or where temperatures have risen too much. The usable land area for cocoa cultivation is therefore becoming smaller and smaller.
Spread of diseases
In addition to climate change, one virus in particular poses a threat to cocoa plants: cacao swollen shoot disease, or CSSD. This causes the leaves to change color, the trunk to swell and the tree to die completely within a few years. The disease is caused by badnaviruses that occur on the African continent. However, since the cacao tree originated in South America, it has no natural resistance to these viruses. The changing climatic conditions also benefit the virus.
Possible solutions for sustainable cocoa cultivation under fair conditions
As difficult as the situation looks, it can also be seen as an opportunity: an opportunity for sustainable organic farming and for fairer pay for farmers.
Fairafric sources cocoa from the first organic cocoa initiative in Ghana. There we see the improvements that organic farming brings to the trees, the farms and the farmers. The cocoa plants are more robust, the soils healthier and the ecosystem intact due to diversified cultivation, so fluctuations in rainfall and temperature and CSSD can't do as much damage. So-called "green barriers," a strip of forest around the cocoa plantation, keep the virus from reaching the cocoa trees. Larger plants on the plantation provide shade and mitigate excessively high temperatures. Such sustainability initiatives will become increasingly important in the future.
However, organic farming alone is not enough for sustainable business. The cocoa must be sold at a reasonable price so that the families of the cocoa farmers can make a good living from it. Only when ecological and social factors are taken into account can we sustainably save the future of the cocoa trees in West Africa - despite climate change and diseases.