Hot Chocolate: Climate Change Threatens to Melt Global Chocolate Supply

We all know the classic M-and-Ms promise: “they’ll melt in your mouth, not in your hands.” Unfortunately, chocolate lovers everywhere should fear the negative effect climate change is already having on this beloved sugary treat.

Cacao Agriculture & Production
The convenient, accessible chocolate bars we pick up at the local grocery store hardly reflect the global, time-consuming and labor-intense nature of chocolate production. To obtain the central ingredient – cacao seeds – the large, football-shaped fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree is split open and relieved of its pulp and seeds. For up to one week, the seeds sit in sweating boxes to ferment in their white sweet pulp, after which the gelatinous mass is dried and packed into sacks for transportation to processing factories. Here, the cacao seeds are cracked, roasted, ground into a thick brown liquid, and pressed to order to extract the cacao butter (approximately 55% of the total volume). Solid blocks of the remaining cacao are then powdered and shipped to chocolate production factories around the world for their final transformation into the familiar delicacies we know and love. [1] [2]


Native to tropical regions of Central and South America, the majority of the world’s cacao trees is grown 10° north and south of the Equator and cannot survive beyond a distance of 20°. This consistently rainy, humid climate with nitrogenous soil, little deviation from a steady 22°C and low winds is critical for proper tree growth and fruit production. While Brazil and Ecuador are the world’s main cacao producers, trees are also grown and harvested across Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malaysia and Indonesia. [1] [3]

The Effect of Climate Change
Although the normal tropic cacao tree climate varies only between 21° and 23°C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the average temperature in these cacao-growing countries will increase over 2°C by 2050. [3] [4] While cacao trees can withstand increased temperatures, the real danger lies with evapotranspiration – increased extreme patterns of both seasonal drought and heavy precipitation-induced flooding caused by Earth’s warming oceans and atmosphere. [5]

While many chocolate consumers in developed North America or Western Europe may not be phased by a world without Almond Joy or Snickers bars, in fact, billions of livelihoods in counties like Indonesia and Ghana have already been significantly affected. For the past decade, crop yields in Indonesia have been steady and immune to any major agricultural diseases. In 2015, Rainforest Alliance reported that cacao farmers had their crop yields halved by drought, as well as increased landslides and top soil depletion resulting from increased rainfall. This changing and intensifying of weather patterns also resulted in new crop diseases and abnormalities in tree flowering and fruit production. The effect of this climate change can also be seen in Ghana, where most tree stock is already past its prime and there is limited shade to protect them from the harshening elements. [5]

Mars and the Global Response
This past June, the World Cacao Foundation (WCF) announced an initiative to bring together the Agricultural Cooperative Development International (ACDI)/Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and leading chocolate companies like Mars to help farmers across the world cope with weather variability and deforestation.

In fact, chocolate giant and M&Ms manufacturer Mars recently employed a team of meteorologists to analyze global weather patterns to improve ingredient sourcing and supply chain management. For companies like Mars, climate change effects even more than chocolate, since water-intensive ingredients like almonds are also under threat from changing El Niño and La Niña weather patterns. Furthermore, in order to reduce its contribution to the underlying causes of climate change, Mars has pledged to reduce in carbon emissions and all greenhouse cases from its operations over the next 25 years. [9]

I applaud Mars’ efforts to reduce its contribution to climate change and its attempts to manage variability in its production and supply chains. I would recommend that Mars form long-term partnerships with other private companies, affected governments, and nonprofits like the Rainforest Alliance to directly support cacao tree farmers. I would also suggest that Mars arm these farmers with innovative climate-resilient materials, modern crop strategies and proven agricultural management processes. Finally, I believe Mars should partner with academic institutions and architectural biotechnology companies to invest in genetic engineering research to develop cacao trees that can better withstand current climate change trends.

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Student comments on Hot Chocolate: Climate Change Threatens to Melt Global Chocolate Supply

  1. I think partnering with other private businesses is a great idea. In my opinion, one reason to work with other companies who use similar resources and create similar products would be to share ideas on how best to approach combating climate change. One worry I have is that individual companies would be protective over the discoveries they’ve made. It will be interesting to see if, as the climate change situation worsens, the private sector and the public sector begin to work with each other in a more intertwined way.

  2. It is really reassuring to see such a wide scale collaboration between NGO’s, private and public institutions coming together to address this issue and wholeheartedly agree that more of such partnerships across the supply chain is key for impact. Mars Inc in fact has already started implementing two of your above mentioned key recommendations – undertaking genetic research to build climate resistant cocoa with IBM and the US govt and equipping farmers with training on agricultural best practices through a footprint of Cocoa Development Centers they have built across their key sourcing regions all with the intention of improving yield on existing farmland. See below link.

    They claim that this will help them to increase current yield by three times in the next 3-5 years, something we will have to wait to see proven, but if successful, it would significantly mitigate the threat climate change poses to Mars’s supply of cocoa.

    I think you bring up a very interesting point around the same fate also meeting several of Mars’s other key product ingredients such as almonds, which makes me think about how relevant some of these things are across their broader supply chain and if there is scope for more standardization of approaches towards agricultural sustainability at large and finding better efficiencies and large-scale impact though that, rather than funding research or providing training on individual crops in isolation.

  3. Great article! I’d heard about climate change affecting cacao production before but always assumed that the biggest negative impact on these trees would be because of increased temperatures, so it was very interesting to learn that the real danger is actually evapotranspiration. I wholeheartedly agree with your recommendation that Mars form long-term partnerships with nonprofits like the Rainforest Alliance to directly support cacao tree farmers, and I wonder if it’s possible for them to take this support a step further and have an even greater impact. For instance, perhaps Mars can create a higher-end (and therefore much more expensive) line of chocolates to sell globally, which could serve two purposes: raise awareness about climate change’s impact on the cacao production business and also raise more funds to support farmers. The proceeds could alternatively also be used towards funding of crop and agricultural management research, and help encourage through good example more partnerships searching for solutions for the environmental issues facing companies and communities.

  4. Thanks for the post Alexandra. Quite interesting. As I was reading your post I couldn’t help but think of the case we studied on GMOs. It would be interesting to understand if they are a potential alternative to this problem (I wouldn’t call it solution since it is not solving anything per se, but rather a way to go around the issue). Doing some research I found this article ( that indicates to date no GMO cacao has been developed yet but who knows. Maybe in the near future!

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