When climate and cocoa collide  

Chocolate prices soar as El Nino dries up major producers but is there more to the story?

By Sushila De Silva, Seifu Tilahun, and Salomon Obahoundje

Farmer harvests cocoa pods on his farm in Ghana. Photo: Seifu Tilahun 

Chocolate connoisseurs were hit by a 10% increase in the price of their favorite sweet this Easter as the world’s largest cocoa producers, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, found themselves seriously affected by disease, illegal mining, changes in land use and climate change. The price of cocoa began creeping up in the second half of 2022 reaching an all-time high in January 2024.

The cacao bean is now more valuable than several precious metals and has surged even faster than bitcoin. Chocolate prices are expected to double in the next couple of years so your favorite chocolate bar might still be available but at twice the price.

Changing climate patterns are partially responsible for the drop in cocoa production. In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire which account for 60% of the world’s cocoa production, unusually high temperatures and rainfall caused by the El Nino phenomenon devastated crops last year. This year it has brought severe drought to the region reducing the cocoa yield even further.

The decline, however, is not something that happened overnight but is the result of long-term factors whose effects are only now reaching crisis levels. Shifts in land use dynamics as cocoa competes with urbanization and expanding agricultural frontiers, crop disease in the form of swollen stem, and galamsey, the widespread practice of illegal gold mining which leaves land contaminated by heavy metals and illegal logging, have all contributed to the dwindling production. A study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) shows that there has been a significant decline in precipitation over the past thirty years with increased water stress and a drier climate. The findings of the soon to be published study, carried out under the two CGIAR initiatives Transforming AgriFood Systems in West and Central Africa and Excellence in Agronomy, paint a concerning picture of the challenges cocoa farmers face due to climate change. The implications of climate change on cocoa farming are profound and demand immediate attention from stakeholders across the industry.

Cocoa ready for harvesting, Ghana. Photo: Seifu Tilahun 

Is there hope for Ghana’s cocoa industry?

IWMI has been working in Ghana to find sustainable solutions for the country’s cocoa sector.  We are collaborating with the Ghana Cocoa Board, COCOBOD, to strengthen the climate resilience of the sector.

“Climate is wreaking havoc on cocoa production in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producers, resulting in significantly lower productivity and production levels. This stark reality underscores the urgent need for sustainable solutions to safeguard our cocoa industry. IWMI’s engagement with us on scalable irrigation solutions for smallholders and viable business models are not just pathways, but imperative for revolutionizing cocoa irrigation under climate change,” said Edwin Afari, Executive Director, Cocoa Health and Extension Division, COCOBOD.

IWMI is helping to increase the availability and accessibility of water solutions and irrigation technologies for Ghana’s smallholder farmers targeting areas with sufficient groundwater and clustered demand.

Supplementary irrigation in the form of solar pumps and climate smart ecofriendly technologies are being explored. IWMI is co-designing and implementing joint research for development initiatives addressing the impact of climate change on cocoa. This collaboration with multiple stakeholders will establish irrigation supply chains that are both sustainable and inclusive providing cocoa farmers with the water solutions, irrigation technologies, equipment and services they need.

Understanding the impact of climate variability, land use and land cover changes and implementing sustainable practices and scaling innovation will help Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire ensure the resilience and longevity of cocoa farming in the face of a changing climate.

By providing insights through its mapping, IWMI is able to support decision makers in the country to design and adopt policies that mitigate the adverse effects of climate change and land use changes on the cocoa industry. IWMI’s research, for example, has shown that ground water recharges to shallow groundwater account for 10% of the annual rainfall in the Upper-Offin sub-basin. This opens the doors to the possibility of irrigating up to 10% of the cocoa farm areas holding tremendous potential for cocoa and other crops especially during dry periods.  According to the study, almost 9,000 hectares in the sub-basin could potentially be irrigated during the dry period using shallow groundwater.

So, there is still light at the end of the tunnel for chocolate lovers. As consumers of cocoa products, though, it is essential for us to support initiatives aimed at promoting sustainable cocoa production. If not, what was once freely available at the corner store will be priced far out of most people’s reach.

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