Cocoa and Climate Change

Making chocolate in the Caribbean sounds like a dream. But Trinidad and Tobago’s once infamous cocoa industry faces many challenges because of climate change. 

Cocoa, once known as the king of crops, has seen a steady decline over the decades. This delicious, mouth-watering treat, which is appreciated all over the world, does not always see the brightest days, at least behind the scenes of cultivation and production. Despite meeting a global demand, behind the sweetness of chocolate, however, there is often a bitter aftertaste. About 90% of the purest cocoa is produced by small-scale farmers who struggle with climate change and low profitability.

Making chocolate in the Caribbean sounds like a dream. But Trinidad and Tobago’s once infamous cocoa industry faces many challenges. Once responsible for producing 20% of the world’s cocoa, and by 1830 was the world’s third highest producer of cocoa, there was a time when cocoa was undoubtedly illustrious. However, annual production has plummeted gravely in the last century.

Cocoa and Climate Change
Photograph of local cocoa farmers in Trinidad; Source: Make Mine Fine Co. (Trinidad) Limited

Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan, a renowned expert in genetics, plant breeding, and biotechnology at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine Campus, focuses his research on harnessing the power of genetics to address the myriad challenges confronting agricultural crops, including cocoa. With over twelve years of dedicated leadership as the Director of the Cocoa Research Centre at the UWI, Professor Umaharan is committed to enhancing the resilience of agriculture not only in Trinidad and Tobago but also throughout the wider Caribbean region. These challenges encompass a range of issues, such as biotechnological risks, diseases, pests, and the ever-present threat of natural disasters.

Being the third largest producer of cocoa in the world, Professor Umaharan delves into the gloomy reality of cocoa’s popularity and production. “Subsequent to 1921, when local cocoa production peaked at 34,000 tons, a combination of events led to the gradual decrease in production including the appearance of diseases like the Witches’ Broom disease in Trinidad and Tobago in 1928, and the development of the local oil industry, which competed for agricultural labour. Despite efforts to sustain the industry, there was a decline in cocoa cultivation from an estimated 46,000 hectares to 20,000 hectares between the 70s and 80s. Generally, the shortage of labour for agriculture has become a serious liability for the industry,” the study states.

As the negative consequences of climate change, such as rising temperatures and poor rainfall, become more noticeable, cocoa production faces increasing challenges. At the same time, the pressure associated with the increase in global demand for this raw material is leading farmers and producers to resort to deforestation so that they can produce cocoa more intensively. There are great risks to this, namely the destruction of natural habitats and the contamination of soil and bodies of water.

Cocoa and Climate Change
Taken from Caribbean & Co. on ‘Reviving the Fine Flavor of the Cocoa Industry in Trinidad and Tobago’ by Ursula Petula Barzey

According to Professor Umaharan, smart climate management techniques such as evaporation, cultivating climate-resistant crop varieties, and agroforestry, just to name a few, can help minimize the impacts on cocoa production. To reconcile the preservation of natural resources with the productivity of cocoa production, these organizations encourage farmers to use specific plants that protect soils from heavy rainfall, as well as water-saving systems and natural pesticides that do not pollute soil or water.

Farmers need reliable and timely meteorological and climatic data to make educated decisions. With access to weather and climate projections and advisory help, farmers can optimize agricultural practices, prepare for climate-induced hazards, and build resilience. To adapt to the changing climate, agriculturalists must use both tried-and-true methods and innovations. Precision agriculture technologies can assist farmers and large agri-tech companies in the successful application of climate-smart agricultural practices.

Beyond its core commercial operations, The Trinidad and Tobago Fine Cocoa Company (TTFCC) has assisted in driving improvements in cocoa production nationwide. In October 2016, it joined ranks with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Cocoa Development Company of Trinidad & Tobago, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Cocoa Research Center (‘CRC’) of the University of the West Indies to launch a project called Improving Marketing and Production of Artisanal Cocoa from Trinidad and Tobago (IMPACTT).

A three-year program, IMPACTT is designed to promote jobs and rural livelihoods by helping cocoa growers improve yields, bean quality, and ensure they have access to domestic and international value-added markets.

Many cocoa farmers around the world have various challenges when it comes to their cash crops. Having a safety net in the form of a minimum price for a crop is not always easy to come by. This is vital, as prices for cocoa are some of the most volatile on the market and frequently plunge to levels that leave farmers hungry and out of pocket.

Cocoa and Climate Change
Photograph of the Business Incubation Centre located in St. Augustine; Photo credit by UWI St. Augustine

As a result, many farmers have to supplement their income with other crops, because the money from cocoa only comes in a couple of times a year and more often than not, doesn’t last that long. The income they receive from these crops is becoming more and more important in keeping their households afloat, especially as the rains have become more unpredictable and the amount of cocoa being produced has been affected by this.

Professor Umaharan himself says he can see the effects of a changing climate on the crops they grow in the form of diseases. “I can see that leaves are drying when we have many dry days and the rain is not coming much, the leaves are getting yellow, when you see the cocoa pods, they are small, and the trees may die.’

On most cocoa farms, pests and diseases spread more quickly, among them ‘black spot disease’ where cocoa pods turn dark and moldy on the tree. This can become extremely prevalent with the extreme heat waves faced within the region over the last few months. Many farmers have complained about the state of the climate and its impact on their crops – especially how it has affected their harvesting routine – with most farmers resorting to harvesting at night-time or early morning to avoid the blazing sun.

Cocoa and Climate Change
Photograph of Trinidadian Cocoa Farmer taken by photographer Daniel Lorenzetti as contained in the Birth of Chocolate Project Galleries

When asked about the conditions for ideal cocoa farming, Professor Umaharan indicated that farming in the rainforest is tough. “The environment is hot, wet and provides ideal conditions for the rapid spread of plant disease.” As a result, some cocoa farmers who grow in forested areas end up going hungry because disease has riddled their cocoa farms. They simply didn’t have enough money to spare to try growing other crops to fall back on when their cocoa was unripe or diseased.

On the other hand, farming in plains is not ideal as this would result in the crops being vulnerable to droughts. An area with a slope and where water can be evenly distributed when there is rainfall is ideal. He notes that the CRC is working towards improvement of resilience of the cocoa plants to dry events in a way that they can grow abundantly in the alternating dry and wet seasons. Without these options, a farmer’s family would be pushed deeper into poverty and hunger.

Professor Umaharan opines that even if a farming family worked hard to grow healthy disease-free pods, challenges will remain. “Various animals would come to the farm and wreak havoc, hollowing out the ripe, sweet cocoa beans from their pods, destroying the whole crop and leaving the farm strewn with empty shells.” With their crop gone, so goes the income. Once again, a farmer is left struggling to find the money to feed their families.

“Now more than ever people want to know about the chocolate they’re buying, how it’s made, where it comes from and what it means for local producers and the environment.”

Professor Umaharan speaks on the trend of the cocoa industry in Trinidad and Tobago over the last 15 years whereby there has been a resurgence in the sector. Trinidad has been known for its production of fine or flavour cocoa which sells at a higher rate than bulk cocoa. “Incentivising in the niche market (as 10% of global producers specialize in fine or flavour cocoa) can result in Trinidad earning approximately $60,000.00 per ton.” In order to effectively sell at the highest price in the world market, Professor Umaharan proposes the training of local chocolatiers in the production, supply, and manufacture of this strain.

There is a good chance moving forward that the main players in the cocoa industry will aim to adapt to the impacts of climate change, especially as most are interested in seeing how it affects production and access to financial resources to build greater resilience. However, bringing to life the complex world of sustainability in a meaningful, engaging, and effortless way is an arduous task, but an important one in driving an industry’s purpose and positioning it to society in a way that speaks to their needs. It is desirable to develop the local cocoa industry since there is a ready market for all of the cocoa the country can produce because of its high quality and lack of restrictive quotas. A program for revitalization of the cocoa industry is required before niche markets are lost due to insufficient and unreliable supply. A resurgence of the cocoa industry could result in unprecedented revenue generation due to down-stream processing.

Cocoa and Climate Change
Photograph of sacks of cocoa beans being exported; Source: Make Mine Fine & Co.(Trinidad) Limited

Down-stream processing refers to the various stages involved in transforming raw cocoa into value-added products such as chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. This not only increases the overall revenue potential but also creates employment opportunities and boosts economic growth within the country. Additionally, investing in the revitalization of the cocoa industry can also lead to sustainable farming practices, promote environmental conservation, and ensure long-term viability for future generations. This revenue generation could lead to job creation and economic growth, benefiting both the local communities and the overall economy.

Additionally, investing in the revitalization of the cocoa industry would also contribute to sustainable development goals by promoting agricultural diversification and reducing dependence on other sectors. Aside from providing local communities with employment possibilities, investing in the revival of the cocoa sector would also help the nation’s economy as a whole. Additionally, the cocoa business has the potential to draw foreign investors and forge long-term trade alliances, which would increase income generation with the right backing and infrastructure development.

This story was published by with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Britney Nurse

Britney Nurse

Britney is a Trinidadian lawyer and writer passionate about the environment and the interlinkage between human rights and climate change. Using her writing skills and legalese, Britney hopes to advocate for the communities impacted by the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination by exposing the injustices imposed on society. She launched several discussions on the role of environmental law in climate justice, plastic pollution, and the perilous effects of the oil & gas industry on the Caribbean.

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