Under a canopy of acacia and mahogany, a cocoa tree is laden with long, ridged pods – canary-yellow shot through with crimson. Take one in your hands and crack it open: Inside, sweet, tangy white flesh is wrapped around a few dozen inch-long, deep brown beans.
This is where the global chocolate sector begins – with the cocoa plant (Theobroma cacao), which evolved in forests among a diverse range of other plant species. Now, it is the source of a billion-dollar industry.
But it also has an outsized environmental footprint. In many of the world’s cocoa-producing landscapes, forests are cleared to make way for the crop. It is grown on its own, in long straight rows under full sun. In Cote d’Ivoire, for instance – which supplies about a third of cocoa worldwide – forest cover dropped from 12 million to under 3 million hectares between 1960 and 2017. Cocoa was the main driver.
Yet plenty of potential exists for cocoa supply chains to operate more sustainably – a quest to which many actors are deeply committed, including local cooperatives, national governments, chocolate companies, and international initiatives such as the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR), which seeks to transform the global food system by promoting sustainable, integrated landscapes and efficient commodity value chains.
Making chocolate more sustainable starts at the landscape-level through the use of technologies to boost the health of cocoa plants and the soils from which they grow.
To increase cocoa yields while restoring soil health and biodiversity, some organizations and companies are supporting smallholders to turn toward new kinds of cocoa landscapes that have more in common with the ecosystems in which the plant originally evolved. They’re building up tree cover on their farms, and using agroforestry techniques to create more diverse farming systems that provide a variety of benefits to the cocoa plants, to soil health and to smallholders.
“We use leguminous trees that can fix nitrogen into the soil; traditional indigenous fruit trees that will be beneficial for the women of the household, which they can use for food or to sell at the market; and big tall timber trees that will stay on the farm for a long time and be a resource for future generations,” says Christophe Kouame, the Cote D’Ivoire country director for the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), which supports local cocoa farmers to make the transition to agroforestry.
Kouame and his colleagues are also helping Ivorian farmers graft highly-productive cocoa varieties onto old and under-producing trees, rather than planting new ones – boosting production with minimal negative environmental impact.
Farmers can also improve their trees’ health and productivity through pruning. “This is a tree that will grow wildly and invest in leaves and branches rather than production, if you don’t cut it back,” explains Bunn. Pruning well also ensures the pods are easy to harvest.
Many smallholder farmers, however, lack the knowledge, time, and resources required to prune effectively – or it is not worth their while given the fluctuating prices of the global cocoa market, he says. In that context, some actors in the sector, such as Dutch chocolate company Tony’s Chocolonely, provide support to farmers to help boost their yields – and stymy deforestation as a result.
“With these farm development plans, we can also target our support better because we know exactly what is needed on all these permutations – for example, if pruning support is needed, we can bring in a labor brigade to help with pruning, which of course results in higher productivity,” says Ywe Franken, a farming accelerator for the chocolate company.
New, affordable technologies could also encourage growers to adopt more sustainable practices, says Bunn. “Sometimes when you raise [environmental] standards, you exclude the poorest, because they’re unable to comply,” he says. That’s where the use of satellite monitoring and inclusive reporting tools could help to integrate the value chain, by making it much easier for smallholders to both receive and transmit the information required.
“Farmers often don’t really understand how their activities translate into production and compliance,” he says. “But if we could talk to them directly in a personalized way – maybe through AI (artificial intelligence) – in theory we could simply get them to take pictures of their farm, and then the recipient of the information would have a good sense of how sustainable they are, and where they might be able to improve. So these are the kinds of technological options that we can hopefully put into the hands of farmers.”
The shift that’s needed, however, will not be as simple as one techno-fix – nor a single age-old agroforestry technique, for that matter. Transitioning toward sustainable cocoa supply chains requires support from national governments, private sector companies, international organizations, and chocolate-lovers across the globe.
“Everybody loves chocolate,” says Kouame. “And we need to continue to have chocolate on the market. So we should all join hands to make sure that cocoa production remains sustainable.”
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