Coffee farmers are turning to cacao  – but it’s no silver bullet

cacao production
  • Climate change is forcing hard-hit coffee farmers to look for alternative sources of income
  • Cacao production has emerged as a potential solution
  • The issue is complex and may not offer the long-term benefits some are looking for

FEW SECTORS stand to lose more from the impact of rising global temperatures than coffee.

As a crop that relies on a delicate balance of warm days and cool nights, suitable areas for growing are shrinking at an alarming rate. Furthermore, changes to rainfall and humidity have already started affecting production, particularly in lower regions.

Higher than average rainfall in Vietnam, for example, is shown to increase the risk of bean defects, a trend expected to continue as global warming pushes on.

Although the effects of climate change on coffee production have been known for some time, strategies to combat them have been limited.

However, one approach for improved resilience within these communities is crop diversification – the replanting of land to incorporate crops better suited to new climate conditions.

As part of this, cacao has emerged as a popular product. But it’s not without its challenges.

What are the challenges?

In several low-lying regions across Central and South America, replacing coffee with cacao has become one of the main strategies for climate change adaptation.

After years of struggling with diseases, compounded by higher average temperatures and fluctuations in the price of coffee, farmers in search of a more sustainable source of income have increasingly turned to cacao.

Its resilience to warmer and more humid conditions than coffee means it is viewed as a good alternative for areas that are becoming unsuitable for growing coffee.

According to recent statistics, cacao has the potential to replace 85% of the vulnerable coffee areas under climate change at elevations under 400 m.a.s.l. and 53% at elevations between 400–700 m.a.s.l.

A number of NGOs and development agencies have advocated this practice in countries where the threat of rising temperatures is greatest, such as Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.

However, it’s far from the perfect solution – not least because cacao itself is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“While it is correct that cacao enjoys higher average temperatures than coffee, it is also dependent on very high humidity, and plentiful and regular rainfall,” says Dr Christian Bunn, who works at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“Climate change is certainly causing a rise in average temperatures in the regions in question. But the change in humidity and rainfall also need to be carefully considered.”

At the CIAT, Dr Bunn and his colleagues use climate modelling to create this holistic view of the changing conditions. This is to consider mitigation paths and action plans to present to stakeholders in Central and South America.

“Although the modelling indicates that some areas of Central and South America will become wetter and warmer as climate change progresses, the distribution of rainfall throughout the year may not favour the propagation of cacao over coffee in any significant way, as the rainfall in some places is likely to become highly irregular, for example.”

‘Substantial work’

While understanding climate science is critical to determining which regions may benefit from cacao crop diversification, economic factors also come into play.

“For the commercial cocoa market, it is not realistic to think that the Americas can compete with West Africa on either price or volume,” Dr Bunn explains.

This means that producers in South and Central America need to produce a higher quality and more valuable product. These producers will likely need to focus on producing cacao used to make “craft” chocolate.

Craft chocolate, like specialty coffee, relies on a high-quality raw product and a traceable supply chain. In the coffee sector, it has been key to giving coffee producers in smaller, more vulnerable regions a level of commercial parity when it comes to marketing and selling their product.

Many of the farmers who rely on a discerning consumer base to buy their high-end product will already have some experience with this process. However, farmers are unlikely to be able to access the broader market alone.

The growth of cocoa production in the region will necessitate a larger presence of “off-takers” working with producers to ensure they can sell their product profitably each season. If the market for cocoa from this region is not growing along with production, farmers can expect regular price crises in the future.

But, overall, Dr Bunn is optimistic about the switch to cacao production. “We are sure that cacao production will work for some producers. We have even seen some farmers in Peru that have successfully made the switch. We just have to be wary that this is a complex suggestion that requires substantial work.”

Diversification requires information, understanding, investment, and a committed approach by stakeholders. However, there is good reason to believe that cacao could pave the way to a more stable future for some of the world’s 25 million coffee producers.