How to Move Towards a Sustainable Cocoa Market

Sustainability within the cocoa industry has become an increasingly common buzz word, but it is a term more often than not kept vague and unqualified in order to obfuscate the amount of progress that the industry has made in regards to sustainability in regards to issues that stretch from agricultural methods to fair labor practices. While initiatives, public statements, and advertisements released by cocoa corporations of all sizes often address issues of sustainability, it is often a marketing ploy to engage with socially conscious consumers as opposed to a goal to actually improve flaws in the cocoa supply chain. How many schools have chocolate companies claimed to have built in places like West Africa, and how does that exactly improve the lives of underpaid farmers? The following video, produced by Fair Trade America introduces the range of initiatives the company claims through the filming of seemingly daily life at a cacao cooperative in West Africa.

A plethora of Fair Trade initiated programs market themselves in manner to emphasize that they have increased the well being of local farmers and their families, is not made clear how financially and programmatically they have been achieved. It is important as consumers who are subject to the marketing campaigns that make companies appear more socially and economically responsible to be able to weed out superficial attempts at sustainability from those that may make a difference, for better or for worse, in order to better make informed decisions. This paper aims to demystify the definition of sustainability within the cocoa supply chain- sustainability from the perspective of farmers, specifically, and outline methods through which such sustainability can be achieved.

Unsustainable practices can be found in many aspects of cocoa production. In terms of horticultural and agricultural processes, very little is known about the cacao plant. It is a manually intensive plant to harvest, and in recent years it has become more and more fragile and susceptible to disease. This decrease in productivity due to the plant’s genetics, age, and horticultural practices have not only negatively impacted supply for large companies, but the lack of income has contributed to many sociocultural issues surrounding farmers in affected regions. The lack of agricultural sustainability, while not the only influential factor, has a direct relationship to the lack of financial sustainability of cacao farmers which ultimately leads to socially and culturally unsustainable practices like child labor. To better put this one plant into perspective, around 50 million lives depend on Theobroma cacao, and in the Ivory Coast alone, 15% of the country’s GDP is dependent on the raw good which translates to about 5% of the country’s households [1]. To these farmers, according to Peter Laderach of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture who studies the effects of climate change in cacao farming region, the cacao trees are “’like ATM machines. They pick some pods and sell them quickly to raise cash for school fees or medical expenses. The trees play an absolutely critical role in rural life [2].’” A rift in the supply of cacao beans for these farmers could be catastrophic to their wellbeing.

The challenges that farmers face in reaching sustainable harvesting regimes range from poor knowledge of best farming practices, older plants with diminishing yields, increases in pest and disease, and the looming threat of climate change; oftentimes farmers face the entire range of issues. In Brazil, for example, disease like Witches Broom reduced production by 80% in the late 80s. Now, another disease, Frosty Pod Rot, has been spreading through Latin America while cocoa swollen shoot virus, the cocoa pod borer, black pod rot, and water mold affect plants in Africa [3]. If Witches Broom and Frosty Pod Rot were to reach West African growing regions, from Latin America, where the majority of the crop is grown, the affects to cacao production would be devastating [4]. Other factors negatively impacting crop yields include a very narrow band of growing compatible growing region along the equator and a diminishing gene pool due to a history of inbreeding. This lack of genetic diversity has exacerbated the species’ ability to combat disease and other hardships.

In light of these issues, many efforts have been taken, especially by large chocolate production companies, in order to produce more resilient plant specimens that will produce more pods and are more resistant to disease and pests. Many, like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey’s, have taken a scientific approach to studying the genetics of the cacao tree in order to increase yield. The video linked here quickly describes the race between teams of scientists at both Mars and Hershey’s to map the genome of the Theobroma cacao plant in order to find answers to disease and pest resistance. Nestle has also placed many resources and efforts into research and development of “super saplings” that will be able to increase yield. Nestle plans on giving away 12 million of these saplings to farmer in 2022.

Both the genetic sequence and selective breeding of cacao plants are crucial in identifying the ideal specimen. Tests done on naturally resistant plants and their offspring are helpful but slow, and the process is greatly sped up with the help of a mapped genome that better identifies where disease and pest resistance genes are located [5].

In all cocoa growing regions, 30-40% of crops are lost to disease and pests [6], and while the efforts to genetically modify the perfect cacao plant are helpful, there are a myriad of other factors that stand to undermine this single faceted approach. Soil fertility, for example, has decreased in many of the growing regions. In fact, oftentimes in abandoned coffee plantations that have moved for higher elevations in order to reduce instances of pest and disease, cacao would take its place as it is less fragile than coffee plants. Additionally, the lack of socio-political infrastructure in many cacao growing regions, for example, coupled with the fact that the cacao farming community is made up of tiny scaled operations in large numbers, makes it incredibly difficult to disseminate change across an entire region and making progress a slow endeavor. Overall, a lack of access to education affects all aspects of a farmer’s financial and social well being. From access to latest technologies to professional literacy, farmers are at a huge disadvantage in terms of setting themselves up for long term economic sustainability. The looming threat of climate change also further exacerbates all of the aforementioned issues.

Given the complexity of issues that stand in the way of sustainability for farmers, the focus of companies like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey’s in finding the ideal cacao plant to increase productivity and therefore profit margins for farmers and ultimately themselves is insufficient in the holistic improvement of the livelihoods of cacao farmers. Take the introduction of cacao to Vietnam as a case study; cacao plants and knowledge of how to plant and harvest them were well distributed to farmers in the 1980s, but after demand for cocoa disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall, farmers slashed their crops out of frustration [7]. This demonstrates that access to plants and planting knowledge is merely one facet of many in building a more resilient livelihood out of cacao farming. The lack of control or input and general knowledge regarding the global market of cocoa production and consumption puts farmers at a huge disadvantage and at the mercy of chocolate makers.

In that respect, the work of smaller, niche chocolatiers like Taza and Equal Exchange are a great complement to the top down scientific research of larger corporations. Due to the scale of their operations, smaller chocolatiers are able to form closer relationships with their cacao producers and create a more mutually beneficial relationship that may raise prices for consumers, better reflects the price point of a sustainable supply chain. Shared knowledge about how cocoa should be grown and how cocoa products should be evaluated is still burgeoning, but one effort that Equal Exchange has been pushing is the development of testing and tasting labs within the region of cultivation to better bridge the knowledge gap between farmers and those buying their goods. How can farmers be expected to produce better quality cacao beans for a higher price if what they are producing is a very foreign product or is too valuable as an export to be consumed? The following video, while is a dramatization of reality, begins to hint at the disparity between those who cultivate and those who consume.

The point to take home isn’t that farmers are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but rather the roadblocks that stop farmers from understanding what happens to their goods after they leave their farms. It is beneficial for all when farmers are as fully aware of the chocolate making process so that they may be able to make decisions about how to plant and harvest for a better product as opposed to constantly relying on manuals and instructions from outside organizations and companies who do not always have the best interests of the farmers as a main priority. Sustainability for a farmer includes the ability to affect the economics of cocoa as opposed to perpetually being victim to the rising and falling prices of cocoa. Overall knowledge and more involvement are key factors in closing this gap.

While much of the focus in on farmers themselves in creating a more sustainable livelihood, there is much that can be done from the perspective of the consumer as well. Awareness and education about chocolate should not be limited to the various producers along the supply chain. A broader, collective conscious effort to understand how the cocoa products come to be lead to more informed consumers that apply pressure to the overall industry to be more sustainable and resilient. While seemingly altruistic, this approach is quite practical as well. The end goal is not for a consumer to feel good about being charitable and righteous, but rather the goal should be about creating a more economically, ecologically, and socio-politically chain where the weakest links at this point are disenfranchised farmers and disconnected consumers. Corporations and organizations in between have various approaches at closing the gap for a variety of reasons, but working towards a complex solution from both ends of the supply chain will be critical to the success of a more sustainable market.

1. Schmitz, Harold, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. “The Race to Save Chocolate.” Scientific American. Accessed May 03, 2016.

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4. Moyer, Michael. “Death and Chocolate: Disease Threatens to Devastate Global Cocoa Supply.” Scientific American. Accessed May 03, 2016.

5. ibid.

6. “Challenges.” World Cocoa Foundation. Accessed May 04, 2016.

7. “Cacao and Chocolate in Vietnam, a Brief History.” Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat. Accessed May 03, 2016.


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