The impact of climate change on cocoa farming in Ghana

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By now it is a well-known fact that climate change affects all aspects of our lives. It should therefore come to no surprise that it also has an impact on something we all enjoy very much – chocolate. Now, what exactly does climate change have to do with the cocoa plant and therefore with our chocolate? We will get to the bottom of this connection in the following.

We at fairafric make a difference in the world of chocolate. For instance, we make sure the people at the beginning of our chocolate production can live a good life. All our farmers receive an organic premium of 600 USD per ton of cocoa they produce, which is added to the government-fixed cocoa price. However, if there are climate-related crop failures, poorer quality cocoa beans or diseases of the cocoa tree, even a premium is no longer sufficient to ensure a good standard of living for the cocoa farmers. In this article we will look at the consequences of climate change on the sensitive cocoa plants and thus on the farmers.

The cocoa tree and its needs

Around 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, mainly in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The climatic conditions in these regions are ideal for cocoa cultivation: there is a lot of rain during the rainy season, in between there are dry periods with plenty of sunshine, high humidity and warm, but not too hot, temperatures all year round. Cocoa trees are very special and sensitive plants. If you wonder what makes them so special check out our blog post about bees on cocoa plantations.

The trees need specific weather conditions to ensure a strong growth and to enable them to bear ripe cocoa pods. As soon as the climatic balance is disturbed, for example by too much rain outside the rainy season or too long dry periods, the cocoa plants suffer. Too long dry periods and lack of rain lead to the death of young cocoa plants, but too much rain can lead to increased insect and fungal infestation (G. J. Anim-Kwapong, E. B. Frimpong).

Due to the sensitivity of cocoa plants, climate change has extreme effects, not only on cocoa cultivation and thus on the lives of cocoa farmers, but also on the quality of chocolate.

The problems for cocoa farming caused by climate change

The change in climatic conditions in West Africa causes several problems for cocoa cultivation. The following explains the three most common problems.

Consistent inputs in area of cultivation and time spent result in lower yields

In the past, the cocoa farmers could rely on their trees, which, if well cared for, guaranteed the income of the entire family. The profits from the cocoa harvest are usually the main income of the families, from which procurements, school fees and medical bills are paid. However, in recent years, farmers had to anticipate more and more uncontrollable crop failures due to climatic changes. Good care is no longer enough to ensure a secure income; it depends on the weather conditions whether the profits from the cocoa harvest are sufficient or not.

In order to get the most out of the cocoa trees despite the ever-decreasing harvest, some farmers use environmentally damaging production methods such as strong pesticides and narrower plantations. This leaches out the soil to such an extent that it will soon be necessary to move to other cultivation areas. Additionally, more land is being abandoned in regions where there is not enough rainfall or where temperature have risen too much. Thus, the amount of land available for cocoa cultivation is diminishing.

Spread of diseases

In addition to climate change, cocoa plants are particularly at risk from a virus: Cacoa Swollen Shoot Disease, also called CSSD. It makes the leaves change colour, the trunk swells and the tree dies completely within a few years. This disease is caused by badna viruses which are found on the African continent. Since the cocoa tree originates from South America, it has no natural resistance to these viruses. In fact, the changing climatic conditions also favour the spread of the virus.

Solutions for sustainable cocoa cultivation under fair conditions

As difficult as the situation looks, it can be seen as an opportunity: as a chance for sustainable organic farming and for fairer payment for farmers.

Fairafric procures its cocoa from the first organic cocoa initiative in Ghana. There we see the improvements that organic farming brings for the trees, the farms and the farmers. The cocoa plants are more robust, the soils are healthier and the ecosystem is intact thanks to diversified cultivation, so fluctuations in rainfall and temperature and the CSSD cannot do as much damage. So-called “green barriers”, a strip of forest around the cocoa plantation, prevents the virus from reaching the cocoa trees. Larger plants on the plantation provide shade and mitigate excessive temperatures. Such sustainability initiatives will become increasingly important in the future.

However, organic farming alone is not enough for sustainable management. The cocoa must be sold at reasonable price so that families of cocoa farmers can make a good living out of it. Only if ecological and social factors are taken into account, we can sustainably save the future of cocoa trees in West Africa – despite climate change and diseases.