Climate Change Constraints on Cacao Farming: Traditional, Taboo and Science

Climate Change is expected to cause a significant shortage of chocolate products in the coming decades.

A recent climate science report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that chocolate might soon be considered a luxury food due to climate change’s effect on production

Source: Scientist Develop New Breeds of  Cacao  

Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Indonesia produce more than 80% of the world’s cacao ( The Top 5 Cocoa Bean Producing Countries ) and all have experienced increasing drought and production decline. Even if limited by lack of information and financial means, the village cacao farmers have applied traditional knowledge in order to help slow down climate change and adapt to decreasing availability of water. A combination of modern scientific solutions along with traditional knowledge and techniques could be the answer for those farmers.

Cacao Shortage, a Supply and Demand Story

Cacao for Climate Change

Global chocolate consumption has gone up 33% in the last decade. During that time, emerging economies have rapidly increased their chocolate consumption as their growing middle class aspires to a Western lifestyle.

In China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, chocolate consumption has increased by 30% and 20% respectively. This trend is expected to continue. A February 2014 Wall Street Journal article projects that cacao demand from those emerging markets will grow at an annual rate of 10% for the next five years

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Production shortages of chocolate have been occurring since 2008. In 2013, global consumption of chocolate exceeded production by four million tons.

In order to avoid a shortage, production of cacao will need to increase 25% by 2020 and trends indicate that growth is unlikely, causing prices of cacao and cacao-based products to keep increasing. Cocoa prices could increase two-fold by 2020, according to the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO)  (Global cocoa prices could more than double by 2020 if output lags -Petra,) making chocolate a luxury product.

Constraints on Cacao Production

Climate Change and Cacao-Water Retention System

Major constraints on cacao production are climate change, aging cacao trees, aging farmers, labor costs, plant diseases and limited access to fertilizer. Most of the global cacao production comes from over five millions small farmers which operate on plots of less than 4 acres each.

With price fluctuations and aging, low-yield trees, farmers do not have the financial means to afford fertilizer. The majority of the trees in countries like Ivory Coast and Cameroon are 50 years oldand produce one third of the normal production. In Nigeria, the majority of cocoa farmers are over 60 years old and this age group accounts for only 3.1% of the general population; young people find agriculture less and less attractive.

Aging farmers are a critical issue in Cameroon. Due to growing labor costs outpacing cacao prices, farmers have had to abandon their farms. Furthermore,while Africa, where most of those farmers live, contributes the least to global warming, its agriculture is the most vulnerable. According to the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), rising temperatures are expected to drastically reduce cacao production in Ghana and Ivory Coast (CIAT Warns of Climate Change Impact on Cocoa Production)

These two countries produce 53% of the world cacao. The CIAT forecasts a 2 to 3 degree Celsius temperature increase by 2050.  These higher temperatures means that cacao trees might not be able to find the needed water for their normal growth, reducing production.

Indonesia, the world’s third largest cacao producer, has a different problem. Climate change increases humidity there, allowing the growth of mold and insects that can adversely affectcocoa trees.

Traditions in Africa

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In countries like Cameroon, agricultural knowledge has been handed down from generation to generation. Also, indigenous farmers observe the surroundings closely, allowing them to identify and adapt to changes sooner. In Cameroon for example, the flowering of certain plants, the mating of certain animals and the appearance of certain birds have signaled time and season changes.

In many African countries, intelligent biodiversity has been used to limit climate variation so that if one crop is affected, another can be produced. In fact, the farmers plant many varieties of crops with different levels of vulnerability to drought and flooding. For examples, flooding has more destructive impacts on corn plants compare to cacao trees; and drought will affect cacao trees more than orange trees.

Clearing of riparian vegetation is often prohibited and controlled by local authorities. It is one of the main factors of increased soil erosion, ultimately causes river flow reduction


Biodiversity is also used to provide to shade to cacao trees. Without shade, the leaves of cacao trees wither under intense sun. During rainfall, farmers will collect rainwater and use it for farm irrigation.

In Cameroon, large barrels are placed under the roof of houses to catch the rainfall. This approach is limited, however, due to the low volume of water recovered versus what is needed for irrigation. Farmers with financial resources dig wells to access aquifers. In the communities that lack water, laundry and dish water is reused to irrigate their crops. During harsh drought, farmers will simply reduce their day-to-day water consumption.



In some Cameroonian villages it is forbidden to go to the river on a specific day of the week to allow the God of the River to take a day off. This conserves water. In some other African villages, it is forbidden to cut down certain vulnerable trees and planting them is encouraged as they are considered holy. This is a way to apply sustainable farming methods and maintain needed shade for cacao trees.

However, compliance with these traditions has been disappearing with increase of community’s interactions and heterogeneity of communities. Also, the expansion of Christianity, and the belief in one God who take cares of everything, has impacted people’s interaction with the environment, causing many of them to abandon their traditional practices.

A Path Forward


A combination of traditional practices and modern techniques could be the path forward. The vast majority of cacao farmers in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Cameroon and Nigeria are financially limited, so it is important to design adapted solutions, as it will be cheaper and more efficient.

A better system of weather forecasting will be the starting point. Then integrated crop-livestock management, optimized crop diversification and the use of crop varieties could be feasible and helpful. It involves implementing farming practices that are drought tolerant and take advantage of water and temperature conditions. Cacao crop management can help ensure that critical growing step does not coincide with the harshest time of the season. Modifying the length of a growing period and changing planting and harvesting dates could be achieved through good management of cacao farming. Mulching and improved water management could be part of the overall approach.

Patrick Tcheunou 2

Patrick Tcheunou
CEO of Smart Globe International and Author 

Others resources

The Chronicle (Ghana), « Cocoa production to decline in 20 years », 30 septembre 2011, « Ageing growers leave Nigeria with cocoa headache », 5 octobre 2011, « Germany leads jump in European cocoa grind », 13 octobre 2011

Ghana Environmental Protection Agency.
 2000. Ghana’s initial national communication under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Accra, Ghana.

GIEC (Grouped’expertsintergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat).
 2007. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis, éd. S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, M. Marquis, K. Averyt, M.B. Tignor, H.L. Miller Jr. et
Z. Chen. Contribution du groupe de travail I au quatrième rapport d’évaluation du GIEC. Cambridge, Royaume-Uniet New York, États-Unis, Cambridge University Press.

Salick, B. etByg, A., éd.
 2007. Indigenous peoples and climate change. Oxford, Royaume-Uni, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

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