Most of the current cocoa-growing areas of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoir in West Africa — where 53% of the world's supply is produced — may not be able to successfully produce the crop by 2050 because of climate change, according to a study in the journal Climatic Change.
With both altitude and increasing temperatures behind the problem, researchers said cocoa production will probably have to move further up in elevation.
While there's some time to plan before climate change seriously impacts the crop, companies with large investments in the sector are taking action now to help maintain the cocoa supply, according to Ingredients Network. These initiatives include planting hardier varieties, adding shade trees around cocoa fields, instituting good farming practices and encouraging more sustainable production.
Climate change isn't the only threat to the global cocoa market. A report published earlier this year noted corporate sustainability initiatives haven't had the desired impact during the past decade because of the high incidence of child labor, low farmer incomes and widespread forest destruction. Add in higher temperatures and altitude-related problems, and the situation becomes even more serious.
Despite these challenges, however, cocoa demand is soaring as premium varieties, dark chocolate options and sugar-free products grow in popularity. The U.S., the largest global market for chocolate, was valued at about $22 billion in 2016 but is projected to eclipse $30 billion by 2021, according to a 2016 TechSci Research report.
Because of the increasing consumer demand and the difficulties of sustaining cocoa yields, chocolate producers are trying to bolster sustainability in a number of ways. Hershey announced a $500-million investment in West African cocoa sustainability this past April, and Nestlé, Lindt, Mars, Mondelez, Cargill and Barry Callebaut have all ramped up their investments and pledges in sustainability.
According to Ingredients Network, Cargill had some success helping cocoa farmers with good farming practices in Côte d’Ivoire. After using strategies implemented by the company's Cargill Cocoa Promise, yields jumped by an average of 49% in 2016 and 2017, it reported.
If these corporate initiatives are successful — and it remains to be seen whether they will be over the longer term — it's still possible the cocoa supply will either decrease beyond the point of sustainability, or the price will go up so much that chocolate products could become too expensive for the average consumer. Since neither of those eventualities is the least bit palatable, it's more likely the pace of climate change mitigation will pick up so the global cocoa supply has a chance of remaining relatively constant.
Should one of those grim outcomes occur, though, there are cocoa substitutes potentially waiting in the wings in case the supply dips or disappears. Researchers in Brazil and the U.K. reported last year that a panel of consumers identified a chocolate-like aroma in flour made from roasted jackfruit seeds, and that the moisture, color and pH of jackfruit seeds are similar to cocoa. With additional R&D investment, other cocoa stand-ins could possibly be identified between now and 2050. But with so many consumers loving chocolate, it's a safe bet that as many steps as possible will be taken to save cocoa before other substitutes are seriously considered.