Cocoa production has potential to do no environmental harm if properly managed, but best practices are not widespread, leading to soil erosion and ultimately further deforestation for new plantations.
Soil erosion and fertilizer-use
Dr. Soetanto Abdoellah, chairman of the Indonesian Cocoa Board, said: “If farmers aren’t using good agricultural practices (GAP) then the impact will be high because for example in Indonesian cocoa farming we always use shade but without shade soil erosion is higher and cocoa needs more fertilizer.”
When the soil erodes, the land becomes less fertile for cocoa and yields decrease. Dr. Abdoellah said it was therefore imperative farmers used GAP such as soil conservation by terracing and mulching, pruning and using shade from other crops.
A recent peer-reviewed study found three-quarters of land in 23 protected areas surveyed in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s premier cocoa grower, had been transformed for cocoa production and found a positive correlation between cocoa farming and the absence of primate species.
Where will the land come from?
Speaking at a World Cocoa Foundation’s meeting last year, Jason Clay, senior vice president of markets & food at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said a small cohort of underperforming farmers were responsible for around half of negative impacts in the cocoa industry including deforestation and fertilizer misuse.
According to Clay, current sustainability efforts were focused on rewarding top performing farmers but negative environmental impacts could be significantly reduced by instead focusing on the lower quotient.
He added in a later interview with this site: “The world cocoa tree population is already beyond its optimal production capacity by about 10 years. To me that’s a huge issue.” This means farms must be rehabilitated or new land is needed for cocoa production.
“In the old days what happened when you planted cocoa you came in and cut down forest. We can’t afford for that to happen on 7m hectares of land globally. It’s not as big a problem in cocoa as it is in soy, palm oil or beef, but we don’t want it to be a problem at all,” he said.
The World Bank said at the Asia Choco Cocoa Conference last week there was not much land left in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which together account for 60% of global cocoa production, in which to plant cocoa that wasn't primary forest. Existing farms will therefore be rehabilitated to boost yields or forest will be cut down.
Where’s the money coming from?
Clay said rehabilitating land was incredibly easy, but why then is it not happening? “You’ve got to convince farmers to rip out trees and that’s what they get money from and we don’t have a system yet to finance that transition period,” he said.
If farmers use grafting techniques the transition is one year and two years for clone varieties and tissue cultures before a farmer has a more productive tree than its aging predecessor, said Clay.
The conservation expert said agricultural banks and state banks should help finance the transition. It may also be within the chocolate industry’s interests to provide financing to limit the environmental impact within their supply chains.
Filling the GAP problems
Leading chocolate companies such as Mars, Ferrero and Hershey have committed to 100% certified cocoa by 2020. Certification bodies train farmers on GAP to limit the environmental impact. Mars, Nestlé, Cargill and Barry Callebaut have their own multimillion cocoa programs but these tend to only account for a quarter of their supply and they don’t rely on certification. All aforementioned companies are part of the World Cocoa Foundation’s CocoaAction platform. One pillar of the initiative is to protect the environment.
Dr Abdoellah continued: “In some countries and some areas GAP is still not wholly implemented. There are many cocoa plantations that don’t use shade for example and are also not using terracing and using molasses as production for soil. This should be changed – the farmers should implement GAP. This is the key of environmental protection.”
He said Latin America lagged behind in implementing GAP because its soil was still fertile. “But slowly if GAP is not implemented fully the fertile soil will decrease.”
He added that while Asian producing nations such as Indonesia mostly implemented GAP, some areas like South Sulawesi were still straggling.
“In Indonesia, the problem is farmers only have little land so it’s impossible to earn enough income with less than one hectare. If farmers try to get more land, now the rest of the land is forest…formerly in Indonesia at least 30% of land was forest but now the percentage is already 15-20%.” He said diversifying crops on existing land to support farmers could help them invest in their farms.
But will industry support training?
But how do you avoid further deforestation and increase cocoa yields to keep pace with global cocoa demand?
Two assessments by KPMG said that certification through bodies such as Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified and Fairtrade led to more efficient agrochemical use and conservation of local ecosystems and biodiversity because of training. However, while up from 2% in 2009, still only 16% of the world’s global chocolate sales used certified cocoa.
Joshua Tosteston, senior vice president of programs at Rainforest Alliance, said it was well established that GAP would not only reduce the environmental impact, but would double or triple cocoa yields. “It’s not rocket science – there’s a clear business case for finance, so why not invest?”