A Bittersweet Future for Chocolate and Valentine’s Day

It’s been 150 years since the heart-shaped box of chocolates became a part of Valentine’s Day tradition. But today, as we indulge in truffles, bonbons, and bars, we’re here to tell you that chocolate may not always be at the heart of this holiday.

With the area most suitable for cocoa-growing shrinking, millions of people living in Africa whose livelihood depends on growing the crop is at stake. Credit: Stewart/flickr.

That’s because over the next 20-40 years, rising temperatures in West Africa — the world’s most important cocoa-growing region — are expected to make the area too hot to grow this key ingredient to chocolate. The projections come in a study released in September 2011, from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

What we’re talking about is damage to a major proportion of cocoa supplies. As two of Mars, Inc.’s top scientists wrote in the February issue of Scientific American magazine:

Beyond the usual difficulties, growing conditions seem to be getting worse. Weather extremes such as floods, droughts and windstorms have always made farming in the tropics difficult. Climate change is beginning to intensify these extremes, which could worsen pest and disease infestation and disrupt water supplies. The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that by 2020 yields in Africa from rain-fed crops — which make up the vast majority of African crops, including cacao — could be reduced by up to 50 percent in some countries.

The worst may still be to come for cocoa, but this year, we’re already getting a glimpse of the challenges climate poses for cocoa. According to BusinessWeek, drier than normal conditions in West Africa during December and January have damaged enough crops that there won’t be enough cocoa to meet worldwide demands this year.

For now, chocolate prices will likely only increase slightly, and in the next few years, cocoa crops are sure to rebound and keep up with our chocolate fetish. Even in a few decades, we probably don’t have to imagine Valentine’s Day without any chocolate because it won’t disappear completely.

But by the middle of this century, the extreme weather and climate pressures could regularly ruin enough crops that we’ll see the price of chocolate climb dramatically higher, making it a true luxury.

What’s far more tragic than higher chocolate prices, though, is the potential impact on millions of people living in Africa (as well as Southeast Asia and Latin America) whose livelihood depends on growing cocoa.

There are very few commercially managed cocoa farms, and most small-holder farmers, such as this man with his family in Côte d'Ivoire, continue to use traditional farming methods.  Credit: Nestlé/flickr.

Unlike most other major crops in the world, cocoa is largely grown on small farms, each owned an operated by single families. According to the World Cocoa Foundation, the average cocoa farm is only 5-12 acres large, which means there are between 5 and 6 million cocoa farms around the world to meet our demand for chocolate.

“Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa production comes out of West Africa, and specifically Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon,” said Robert Peck, the director of operation at the World Cocoa Foundation. In these countries, he said, typically the entire household works to maintain the family cocoa farm.

“If we extrapolate that the average household size in these countries is 8 or 9 persons, then there are tens of millions of people only growing cocoa.”

For these people, higher temperatures and more variable extreme weather are damaging their major source of income, and the solution won’t be as simple as moving their farms. Overall, the area most suitable for growing cocoa is shrinking.

Educating the millions of farmers about their crops and helping them breed more robust and higher yielding cocoa plants could in the long run, Peck said, help offset some of the damage from the changing climate.

Meanwhile, if you’re lucky enough to get a box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day, we suggest you savor it and enjoy every bite. With chocolate bound to get more expensive in the future, jewelry may soon have to suffice.

Additional Resources:

A Valentine's Day & Global Warming interactive from Climate Nexus. Click on any paragraph for the full version of the associated article.

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