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Imagine a world without chocolate. No more gooey Mud Cake. Naked eclairs. No more choc cups or picking your favourite out of the box of assorted treats. Sound horrible? You may have no choice if we continue to use resources like there is no tomorrow.

Where does chocolate come from?

NB. Cacao is cocoa in its raw, less-processed form. The two words are however often used interchangeably.

  • Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which is native to tropical regions of the Americas.
  • The fruit or cacao pod, grows straight from the branches, is egg shaped, and weighs about 500 g when ripe.
  • A tree begins to bear when it is four or five years old. A mature tree may have 6,000 flowers in a year, yet only about 20-30 pods will mature.
  • The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. About 1,200 seeds (40 pods) are required to produce 1 kg of cocoa paste.

Varieties of cacao
The Criollo variety does not produce as much as the others but the cocoa is of very good quality. It is grown mainly in Central and South America.
The Forastero variety produces well, but the quality is not as good as Criollo. It is grown a lot in Africa.
The Trinitario variety is a cross between Criollo and Forastero. It yields cocoa of fairly good quality.

Global chocolate supply

On a global scale, cacao is grown in plantations covering approximately 10,000,000 ha of land, much of it on smallholdings which are not mechanised. Somewhere around 4.5 to 5 million tonnes of chocolate has been produced each year over the 2016-2021 period. This makes chocolate a high stakes foodstuff commodity on the world market. Chocolate production has increased 4x since 1961.
Although cacao trees originated in tropical South America, they are now grown in numerous places around the globe.

cacao producing companies
cacao producing countries

Top 20 Chocolate producing countries

Rank in
CountryCocoa Production in
metric tonnes
1Ivory Coast2034000Africa
6Brazil235809South America
7Ecuador205955South America
8Peru121825South America
9Dominican Republic86599North America
10Colombia56808South America
11Papua New Guinea44504Oceania
13Mexico27287North America
14Venezuela23349South America
17Sierra Leone14670Africa
18Haiti14173North America
19Guatemala11803North America

What all these areas have in common is they provide essential specific environmental conditions, including

  • fairly uniform temperatures (min 18-21 C to max 30-32 C)
  • high humidity (70-100%)
  • abundant and reliable rain (between 1,500mm - 2,000mm pa with no prolonged periods of shortfall)
  • protection from wind by surrounding plants
  • soil which is water retentive but also free draining; optimum pH range is 5.0-7.5


Factors which threaten the production of chocolate

Physical features of the environment
Case study 1 - Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana

Almost 60% of the world's cocoa beans are grown in Côte d’Ivoire and its eastern neighbour Ghana in Western Africa. Most is grown in small farm holdings. Experimenting with extensive monocultures in the 1970 indicated that large scale mechanised farming is not sustainable for this crop.

Susceptibility to climate fluctuations means that crop production may vary from year to year, but there has been a trend to smaller crops due to drought and disease. e.g. In Ghana,  a historic high of 1million metric tonnes in the 2010/11 crop year to has fallen to an average 800,000 metric tonnes currently.

By 2050, it is projected that this region will be confronted with the combined effect of the increase in temperatures (+2°C), variation in rainfall (-9% in May and +9% in October), and rising sea levels (30 cm).((

This means the ideal conditions for cocoa-growing will shift to higher altitudes — but most of West Africa is relatively flat, so there is not a lot of land at higher elevation to move to.  Plus, clearing forests to pave way for farmland will actually end up exacerbating climate change even further.


Case study 2 - Ecuador

In Ecuador during 2015, 2016, and 2017, extraordinary rains, related to the anomalous warming of the sea surface in the equatorial Pacific coast, altered the historical averages in precipitation, solar brightness, and environmental temperature. This caused severe impacts in  cacao flowering, the pods’ development, and the growth of the cacao trees. It was noted that the cocoa fruit did not develop completely during the droughts, and high precipitation diminished flowering and fruit set. Thus both extremes made the crop less productive.((Vulnerability to climate change of smallholder cocoa producers in the province of Manabí, Ecuador))


Monoculture versus agroforestry

Although coca trees have been grown in monocultures, this practice has not necessarily been more productive in terms of cacao harvest compared to an agroforestry approach. It has lead to plantations becoming unsustainable over time due to soil degradation. Deforestation to create cacao plantations is itself contributing to climate change. Theobroma evolved as an understory plant and benefits from the shade and wind protection of other species around it. When not grown in a monoculture, both cropping and non-cropping trees may be interspersed with the cocoa plants to create a variable mix. Drought creates the problem of trees competing for water but this is at odds with the protective advantages offered by the presence of other trees. Research is being carried out into optimal species selection for specific situations.(( Agroforestry also helps farmers to gain a more secure income from a variety of sources and the practice also supports biodiversity.((



The unusual shape of the flower restricts the number of species of insects that are capable of pollinating the flowers. Small midges (1 - 3 mm in length) of the genus Forcipomyia carry out the pollen transfer as they are small enough to creep into the crevices of the floral structure to reach the pollen on the anthers and transfer it to the stigma of another bloom.
This is complicated by the fact that the midges are poor fliers, they cannot carry enough pollen for fertilising more than one flower, and the flowers only have a 1 to 2 day life span.

These midges have a 4 stage life-cycle (egg, larva, pupa and adult). Their egg and larval stages are tied closely to moist areas and they breed  primarily in the rainy season. Increased environmental instability may inhibit their life cycle at any of the four stages and hence lower the number of pollinators available to fertilize the seeds.

The native habitat of chocolate midges is dense, shady rain forests, so the midges seldom seek the sunnier, unnatural arrangement of cacao trees in commercial plantations for pollination.

Trials were commenced in 2017 in Ghana to assess the efficacy of hand pollination. Results have been positive.

blackpod rot on cacao fruit
blackpod rot on cacao fruit

Theobroma trees are subject to various pest attacks such as

  • witches broom (fungal)
  • black pod rot (fungal)   - shown in the image on right
  • frosty pod (fungal)
  • swollen shoot (viral)
  • dieback (fungal)
  • sap sucking bugs
  • leaf eating bugs
  • pod borers
  • root borers
  • damage by birds and mammals e.g. rats
  • weeds


These pathogens and pests differ in their attack methods and severity but all are capable of causing losses in the thousands of tonnes. Once again, climate change can have an amplifying or destabilising effect on the balance of the interaction. Especially because we are are not familiar with every aspect of the biology of the pests and predators, and therefore it is hard to predict how environmental change might upset the balance between the cacao tress and its attackers. Conditions which favour a particular pest may potentially destroy a crop before equilibrium between host and pathogen can be achieved.

What can we do about it?

Solutions involve scientific, technical, social, legal and economic factors to varying degrees.

Some veer towards pure technofix i.e. some new technology is developed and employed and no change in social or behavioural practices is expected. Major confectionery manufacturers are funding scientific projects aimed primarily at maintaining, if not maximising, outputs.Sometimes technofixes can help, but often there are unexpected consequences because altering one factor in a system upsets the balance of other interactions in the system.

For example, an attempt at cloning to increase yield in Indonesian plantations was a disaster in that the trees produced which were misshapen, spindly and had poor root development. Further attempts at genetic engineering are being carried out using new technologies. Any one attempt may produce more robust plants for a given environment but may also remove some diversity that would be advantageous in changed circumstances.

More holistic approaches involve social change channeled through political will and economic incentives to alleviate the effects on climate disruption. The tree farmers are generally living at subsistence level and not contributing significantly to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, so they should not have to bear the brunt of these changes by themselves.

And there are those who see not just a crop supply problem, and focus on global climate warming as requiring high level government environment intervention to rescue the whole earth.

  • Consider who you vote into power in your country.
  • Consider your own consumption patterns and who you buy from.
  • Consider the future and what you want it to look like.

Acknowledgement of issues not covered on this page

The social effects of change for small farm-holders, the politics of the producer countries, the use of children for slave labour -

Starting point for finding out more about these issues can be found at

did you know cliparta quick explanation of how is the raw product turned into a range of commodities


products from theobroma cacao beans
products from theobroma cacao beans

You can view a "tree to chocloate bar" video showing the entire process done on a domestic scale.