Last week, several publications celebrated a new study that highlights the impacts of climate change on cocoa, stating global warming might make chocolate taste better. “Good news, chocolate-lovers,” wrote one outlet, “climate change may have a silver lining.”
Sadly, it’s not true.
Wiebke Niether, the lead researcher of the study (published in the Journal of Agriculture And Food Chemistry) stresses, “We did not … show that climate change may offer opportunities to produce chocolate with a better taste.”
Instead, what they found was evidence that climate change impacts the production of fat and minerals in cacao (the pod-shaped fruit whose seeds become cocoa and chocolate) that, in turn, influence both nutritional value and flavor.
But the compounds the researchers focused on aren’t going to boost the tastes we want, explains Darin Sukha, a research fellow and food technologist at the University of the West Indies’ Cocoa Research Centre who studies how various factors and environments impact cocoa flavor.
His external assessment of the new study reinforces Niether’s response: “Drought is not going to make better-tasting cocoa.”
The researchers focused on how water stress impacts phenolic compounds, natural antioxidants that are also associated with flavor. The amount of these compounds, the researchers found, increased during the dry season. But, Sukha clarifies, the compounds the researchers focused on “are limited to bitter and astringent flavors. They have none of the positive and ancillary flavors that are more strongly linked to cocoa fermentation and drying that are expressed during roasting.”
Niether and a team of German and Swiss researchers have spent the last nine years growing cacao to understand the nuances of how climate change impacts cocoa in rainy and dry seasons, grown under different kinds of conditions: 1) in full sun as a monoculture, grown both conventionally (with synthetic chemicals) and organically; 2) as part of a diversified agroforestry system, in which other trees and shrubs are interspersed between both conventional and organic cacao; and 3) as a full-tilt eco-friendly system, in which organic cacao trees are grown within an agroforestry system rich in biodiversity.
Monika Schneider, a member of the research team based at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland, says the group’s goal is to run trials for at least 20 years to determine how to create greater resilience in the crop and better understand how different growing systems impact the chemical composition of cocoa beans.
In other words, while most studies have focused exclusively on how climate change will affect cocoa yields, the goal of this long-term study is to assess how global warming also impacts the quality of cocoa beans that, in turn, influences their taste.
But as Andrew Daymond, a senior research fellow in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the U.K., points out, “For most cocoa farmers … their livelihoods are dependent on yield, not on the composition of their cocoa beans.”
And one thing is for sure: Climate change will affect yields. Cocoa grows in a thin band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The impact of climate change will vary from region to region and will do more harm than good, says Jean-Marc Anga, the executive director of the International Cocoa Organization.
“Drought, excessive rainfalls, extreme weather and excessive soil salinity can only reduce the yields — and will hamper, negatively, the livelihood of cocoa producers,” Anga says.
What might offer some consolation is the study’s bigger-picture takeaway — that diversified agroforestry systems are better for cocoa cultivation because they reduce stress on the plants and help buffer the impacts of a warming planet.
“Climate change will affect production,” lead researcher Niether says. “Production systems that have better adaptation — like agroforestry systems — may have better opportunities to resist drastic [environmental] changes and produce chocolate with a consistent quality and quantity that improves the livelihoods of farmers.”
Simran Sethi is the author of the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love and creator of the chocolate podcast The Slow Melt.