Cocoa and Climate Change: Urban Legends and Rural Realities

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Author Ethan Budiansky

Senior Director, Environment
World Cocoa Foundation

Since 2013, a series of media articles have caused cocoa farmers and chocolate lovers alike to worry that chocolate could become “extinct” in the next few decades. These stories tend to selectively interpret research carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The good news is that we really do not need to start planning our goodbyes to chocolate. However, because of climate change, it is increasingly clear that some land will become less suitable for cocoa production. The CIAT models are useful for understanding long-term trends. Importantly, these projections are based on a continued ‘business as usual’ approach to growing cocoa. At the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), our work on cocoa sustainability is anything but ‘business as usual.’

WCF works with its members in the cocoa and chocolate industry to support both sustainable livelihoods and a reliable cocoa supply via a twofold approach:

  1. Helping cocoa farmers improve their agricultural practices, including by adapting to climate change.
  2. Fighting deforestation, one of the root causes of climate change.

Today, due to obsolete agricultural practices, productivity on most cocoa farms is far below where it could be. Smallholder cocoa farmers, who commonly face economic hardships, are now experiencing the effects of fluctuating weather patterns and prolonged drought, particularly in Latin America. We know that with improved planting materials, professional farming techniques, and sustainable soil fertility management, cocoa productivity can be increased and farmers can better cope with climate change. With a “more cocoa on less land” approach, cocoa production can focus on more suitable areas, transitioning out of high risk climatic zones.

In 2016, WCF launched the Feed the Future Partnership for Climate Smart Cocoa (CSC) with support from USAID and nine WCF member companies* in West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Liberia) and Latin America (Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). The goal of the four-year (2016-2020), $2.1 million strategic program is to support the private sector in increasing its investment and engagement in climate smart cocoa, with a special emphasis on farmers’ resilience to the impact of climate change. WCF is working with governments, civil society organizations, and experts from cocoa and chocolate companies to develop collaborative climate smart cocoa strategies on the national and regional levels. We also join forces with technical experts to improve climate impact models in West Africa and Central America.

WCF is identifying best practices and innovations in climate smart cocoa. We support the development of a training curriculum that companies and governments can use to train farmers on specific climate change adaptation practices targeted to their unique climactic zone. As temperatures rise and cocoa trees struggle with hydration levels, agroforestry is increasing viewed by experts as a promising model for cocoa farming by improving shade and ecosystem services while increasing farm resilience and diversification of household income. WCF helps identify market linkages for agroforestry products and cocoa planting material that is more resilient to heat and drought. We also develop financing mechanisms to support farm level renovation and rehabilitation and work with governments on land and tree tenure national policies to put the appropriate incentives in place for farmers. Finally, WCF is developing increased understanding of environmental sustainability in the Latin American context, where cocoa, as a native plant, can help restore degraded land, drive reforestation and even sustain indigenous communities.

Climate change is both a contributor to and a result of deforestation in cocoa-growing regions. In 2017, WCF, in partnership with IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative and the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, launched the Cocoa & Forests Initiative to end deforestation and forest degradation in the cocoa sector, beginning in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The Initiative also places a focus on producing ‘more cocoa on less land,’ thereby helping to reduce pressures on forested areas and increasing canopy cover and carbon sequestration.

As part of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, cocoa and chocolate companies and cocoa-producing countries have committed to no further conversion of any forest land for cocoa production and to eliminate illegal cocoa production in national parks, in line with stronger enforcement of national forest policies and development of alternative livelihoods for affected farmers. The governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and 24 leading chocolate and cocoa companies** thus far have committed to full and effective consultation and participation of cocoa farmers in the process and to the promotion of community-based management models for forest protection and restoration. The Cocoa & Forests Initiative also includes a comprehensive monitoring process, with a satellite-based system to track progress on the overall deforestation target, and annual publicly-disclosed reporting on progress and outcomes.

* Barry Callebaut; Cargill; Ecom; The Hershey Company; Lindt & Sprüngli; Mars, Incorporated; Nestlé; Olam International Ltd; Touton.

** Arysta; Barry Callebaut; Blommer Chocolate Company; Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate; CEMOI; Cocoanect; Cococo Chocolatiers; ECOM Group; Ferrero; General Mills, Inc.; Godiva Chocolatier, Inc.; Guittard Chocolate Company; The Hershey Company; Marks & Spencer; Mars Wrigley Confectionary; Meiji Co., Ltd.; Mondelēz International; Nestlé; Olam Cocoa; Sainsbury’s; Toms Group; Touton; Tree Global; and J.H. Whittaker & Sons Ltd.