"The biggest worry for the cocoa sector today is climate change," Michel Barel, director of consultancy Kawacao who was previously head of cacao research at French research institute CIRAD, said at a conference organised by the French Academy of Chocolate and Confectionery in Lyon this week.
"The cocoa tree needs heat but also a lot of humidity, and when we see the Sahel advancing several kilometres southwards every year towards the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, this reduces their cocoa-growing capacity.”
Adopting agro-forestry techniques that were used in the past is one solution, Barel said, such as using the shade of other trees to protect the cocoa tree.
“All the big corporates, Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Mars, Cémoi, etc, are definitely aware of all this because it is their raw materials that are at stake, and the sustainability of their raw materials.”
But creating a sustainable sector is not just down to industry but also the government, Barel added.
“If the government tells [farmers] to plant shading trees, they will plant trees. If you take the Côte d’Ivoire – I’m a little worried about the Côte d’Ivoire today – it wants to mass produce cocoa in huge quantities. It is selling land to big multinational corporates to grow cocoa without any shading because it yields more, and they produce more but with pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation, etc.
“That is what the Ivorian state wants, which, in my opinion, is the opposite of what should be done. They want to make their country prosper in this way but it’s not ideal from an ecological perspective.”
Joaquin Munoz, director of fair trade at French chocolate and confectionery manufacturer Cémoi, spoke of the four-pillared approach Cémoi is taking to make its supply chain more sustainable through its programme Transparence Cacao.
The industry also faces the dilemma of a disappearing work force. The average age of a cocoa farmer is 50 years old – in a region where life expectancy is 60 - and many young West Africans see no future in the hard work and meagre pay of cocoa farming.
Could fair trade certification and its higher premiums offer a solution? Both Barel and Munoz have doubts.
“Fair trade probably represents 5% of the global market," said Barel. "To be certified fair trade, [farmers] need to pay and they don’t necessary have the means.
“It might be possible at a village level, or at a cooperative level if it is big enough, but certainly not at a farmer level. For me, fair trade is useful to raise awareness among consumers. I would like to see all trade become fair but cocoa today is a highly speculated product. As long as it remains subject to stock market speculation, the balance will weigh in favour of markets and financial centres rather than fairness. That’s the difficulty we face today.”
Cémoi believes adopting the aromatic approach could indirectly increase farmers’ income because the higher-quality cocoa fetches a higher price, and more of it is used in the final product. Demand for dark chocolate is rising in both France and elsewhere in Europe, Munoz said.
But betting on demand for fine cocoa alone is not enough, according to Barel.
“If a farmer today produces high quality cocoa, also called fine or aromatic cocoa, he makes a better living because demand is higher than supply. I think this will continue for the next 20 years. But if everyone starts to produce fine cocoa, of course the market won’t be able to absorb it.
“People need conventional cocoa to make bars, drinking chocolate and other products where cocoa is just one of many ingredients.”
Barel added: “I hope we will continue to produce cocoa and I’m not too afraid of shortages. Even if the major producing countries in Africa that represent 74% of global production have problems of [soil] fertility, it would be a shame for them and I would be very sad, but we could produce cocoa elsewhere. So in terms of cocoa procurement, I don’t think it will be a problem. For those producer countries, of course it will.”
Cote d'Ivoire footage courtesy of © Oliver Nieburg