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Cocoa Crunch: El Niño’s Impact on Valentine’s Day Treats

Scott Patterson • February 14th, 2024.

Valentine's Day Chocolates

On Valentine’s Day, nothing says I love you like a heart-shaped box full of chocolates. Unfortunately, thanks to climate change and El Niño this year, costs for boxes of chocolates have nearly doubled due to a poor cacao bean harvest in western Africa. Will this trend continue? For the answer to that, it’s worth exploring more about where cacao beans grow and how El Niño could have such a significant impact on the harvest.

Cacao Beans

Fig 1. Cacao Beans being pulled out of the pod.

Cacao Beans, Cocoa Powder and Chocolate

Cacao beans grow in a cacao pod, which grows on the trunk or large branches of a cacao tree. There are 30 to 40 beans in each pod and it takes about 400 beans to produce 1 bar of chocolate.

Cacao beans are harvested all year long. This is because they don’t grow at the same rate on a tree, so pods have to be checked on a regular basis. Cacao beans are then dried and fermented before being shipped to a processor. At the processor, the fermented cacao beans are roasted, at which point cocoa butter is removed, which creates cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is combined with sugar and other ingredients to make the chocolate that you eat. Cocoa butter is often used in cosmetics, but can also be added back into the chocolate.

Cacao pods on trees

Fig 2. Cacao pods on the trees in a cocoa farm.

El Niño and Cacao Beans

Cacao beans require very specific growing conditions that are only found near the equator. A combination of heat, humidity, rain, and low wind speeds are the type of growing conditions for an optimal harvest. El Niño affects these delicate growing conditions by shifting the timing of the wettest periods of the year and incorporating more heat and lower humidity.

Map of Global Cacao Production

Fig 3. Cacao bean growing areas around the world,
between 20 degree North and South latitude. 

A strong El Niño that developed in mid-2023 and is still active will likely end by mid-2024, with an expected end date somewhere between May and August of this year. El Niño starts as much warmer sea surface temperatures along the equator from western South America and extends almost to Indonesia. This area of warmer water initially alters the weather pattern over the Pacific. Because weather patterns move around the world, the altered weather pattern moves east into North and South America, across the Atlantic Ocean and into Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Normal El Nino Effects on Precipitation

Fig. 4. Normal El Niño effects on precipitation. 

The El Niño specifically changes the growing conditions in West Africa by changing the location of the ITCZ or Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, which is a concentrated area of rain and thunderstorms that form along the equator and around the world. The ITCZ drifts north or south of the Equator while following the sun. This means the ITCZ is usually farther north in May to August and farther south in December to February. This year the area of rain and storms pushed north faster, but also produced very heavy rain which led to flooding. This is not good for cacao beans because it can increase the possibility for fungus, like black rot, to develop. Then the area of heaviest rainfall moved away and hot, drier conditions moved in, which is not favorable for efficient growth.

It’s possible the reason for the earlier rainfall is linked directly to the El Niño and also to warmer than normal sea surface temperatures off the west coasts of Africa and part of a marine heat wave.

Abnormal Rainfall in Africa

Fig 5. March 2023 observed heavier than normal rainfall in some areas of
West Africa, especially in the blue-shaded region. Normally this rain
sits right offshore, with some showers moving into parts of Nigeria
and Cameroon, but not as much into Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Normal Rainfall in Africa

Fig 6. The normal peak period of rain is in the summertime, but in 2023 the rainfall
was hit and miss in April and May. There was more rainfall in June and July,
but then another dry, hot period for July and August. In a normal season this
area has rainfall most days during the summer and drought is not expected.
When this does not happen, it is not good for cocoa trees because the humidity
decreases and this is a critical part of the growth of the pods. 

The Future of Chocolate

The demand for chocolate is not expected to decrease anytime soon, especially over Valentine’s Day.  The ability to grow the cacao beans used for making chocolate may become much harder as the planet warms. Climate change is leading to warmer global air temperatures and is likely the reason behind much warmer ocean temperatures, both of which are changing how weather patterns normally operate.

As El Niño continues to weaken this year, La Niña is poised to return just as quickly. While the weather patterns and air temperatures will adjust to the new La Niña pattern, the water temperatures in the ocean will be very slow to show any difference. For that reason there may be some residual effects of the El Niño heading into the cocoa bean growing season and harvest for 2024-2025, which means another year of unfavorable production.

Next year it may be even more costly to say I love you. Here are a few alternative Valentine’s Day ideas from Rainn Wilson and our friends at Climate Basecamp.

For a more detailed forecast of the upcoming cacao bean season, or any season for the next few decades, reach out to ClimateAi.

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