The future of chocolate - What impact will climate change have on cocoa farming?

Die Zukunft der Schokolade - Welche Auswirkungen hat der Klimawandel auf den Kakao-Anbau?

In the sixth IPCC Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the scientific basis of the global climate system and climate change. It shows that temperatures have risen rapidly almost all over the world since pre-industrial times and will continue to do so. In many areas of the world, this is leading to extreme weather events, such as heavy rain, floods and droughts. The report shows not only what effects have already been observed, but also what changes can be expected in the future in different regions.What impact will climate change have on agriculture in West Africa? Will chocolate soon become an even more scarce commodity? You can find the answer to these questions in this blog post.

Background, Facts and Figures

The IPCC report consists of three volumes, each of which is being worked on by different working groups. All three groups have as their goal to evaluate climate scenarios that may occur in the future. Working Group II and III elaborate on the consequences of climate change and possible adaptation and mitigation pathways. The current issue contains the results of working group 1 and deals with the projection of climate change. Based on scientific principles, the report shows the changes in the global climate system. This includes regional and global simulations as well as observations and evidence. The core result of the report could be summarized as follows: the temperature of the atmosphere, oceans and on land has risen sharply in only a short period of time. Humans are clearly responsible for this.

But global warming is not in itself a new phenomenon. Some five thousand years ago, the global temperature increased. However, while some parts of the earth became warmer, other regions became colder. Nevertheless, the overall temperature rose by a total of 1.5 °C every thousand years. In the past, such a trend was always reversed by a cooling process. In all these respects, man-made global warming differs from a natural one. In just 50 years, the global temperature has risen by 1.1 °C.

This rapid increase affects different regions of the world differently. In addition to higher temperatures, changes in precipitation and soil moisture are considered indicators of climate change. The more global warming increases, the greater the consequences in these three areas. For this reason, climate policy sets the goal of not exceeding a certain temperature increase. With a climate target of 1.5 °C, for example, this would mean that extreme temperature events would occur about 4 times more frequently and almost 2 degrees hotter than before within a decade. Similar predictions are made for heavy rainfall, which is expected to be 10.5% more intense at 1.5 °C global warming. With a climate target of 2 °C, on the other hand, the intensity of heavy rainfall would even have to be expected to be 14 % higher than in the pre-industrial era. This would mainly affect regions in high latitudes, the tropics and monsoon regions. This includes the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Brazil and Ghana. Cocoa plants are cultivated in all these countries. This raises the question of what consequences climate change will have on cocoa cultivation.

Climate change and cocoa cultivation

The effects of global warming can already be observed in Africa. Relative sea levels have risen, surface temperatures have increased significantly compared to the rest of the world, and there are more cold and heat extremes.

For the future, scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict frequent and intense heavy rainfall events. This is especially true for West Africa and thus also for Ghana. As a result of intense rainfall, floods and inundations caused by rain are to be expected in the future and have already been observed. This has already been the case for example, in Niger, where flooding occurred in numerous communities. At the same time, desiccation and drought are already plaguing many West African regions. Natural events are having an impact on local agriculture. This includes cocoa farming.

In 2020, West and Central Africa experienced severe flooding.

Cocoa trees only thrive under specific conditions. They need a certain temperature level, plenty of moisture and water, nitrogen-rich soil and protection from wind. One of the climatic consequences in West Africa is extreme heat waves. The resulting dry season significantly limits the amount of water available to irrigate the plants. Although cocoa is relatively resistant to temperature increases, water availability plays a critical role in the growth and yield of the crop. As a consequence of heat extremes, trees will bear less fruit and cocoa yields will be significantly lower. In addition, the shallow root system and large, broad leaves of the plants will make it difficult for water to be stored. Droughts and dry periods will therefore mean that there will be fewer and fewer suitable regions for cocoa cultivation.

One solution to this scarcity problem could be special genotypes of the cocoa tree. These cocoa types are less sensitive to a change in water levels and therefore have higher chances of survival. Breeding such varieties could be the future of cocoa farming. Organic cocoa farming also offers a solution to climate impacts. This is because on organic plantations, other trees are planted alongside the cocoa plants. These provide shade for the cocoa trees and thus protect them from drying out. This method is also used on the plantations of our partner initiative Yayra Glover Ltd. Here, coconut or banana trees are planted in addition to cocoa. But organic cultivation is not only beneficial for the shading of the cocoa plants. For cocoa trees to bear fruit, their flowers must be pollinated. This is normally done by small insects, which are killed by pesticides in conventional farming methods. On the organic plantations of our partner initiative Yayra Glover Ltd., this is of course, not the case. Here, pollination happens naturally, resulting in significantly higher yields. Find out here what other advantages organic farming has for cocoa cultivation.

The second challenge for West Africa's agriculture is the foreseeable increase in heavy rainfall events. This is likely to lead to more frequent flooding in the future. This, too, has negative consequences on cocoa cultivation. Young cocoa plants in particular will not be able to withstand the increased water supply. This means that farmers will soon have to face the problem of cultivating new plants. This is because soil moisture will temporarily increase too much as a result of the increased precipitation. Thus, this climatic consequence is also a cause for the reduction of suitable cultivation areas. However, yields will also be affected by the heavy rainfall. As soon as the cocoa pods ripen, the risk of diseases is increased by the moisture.

In West Africa, climate changes are already having a major impact on agriculture. Fortunately, on organic plantations, the climate impacts are less drastic. The cocoa farmers of our partner initiative report that their plants have survived the droughts and dry periods, - while other farmers on conventional plantations suffered great losses and had to replant entire farms. For the upcoming climate changes, sustainable agriculture and organic farming therefore raises great hope.

The consequences of global warming are reducing the amount of suitable land for cocoa cultivation. While dry seasons and droughts already pose a challenge to agriculture in West Africa, problems caused by floods and heavy rains will also arise in the future. So far, no strategy against these climate events has been able to prove its worth. This makes it all the more important to ensure sustainable and responsible consumption of chocolate. To enable alternative farming methods, cocoa farmers must be guaranteed the necessary financial resources. On the organic plantations of Yayra Glover Ltd., bananas and coconuts are harvested in addition to cocoa. These are sold by the farmers and thus provide a second source of income.

The governments of the exporting countries can also support cocoa cultivation and research with the help of loans. Consumers can also contribute to the support of cocoa farming by buying fair trade organic chocolate, which is ideally produced in the country of origin and thus leaves a large part of the value creation in the country.