How biochar, ‘agriculture's black gold’, is helping cocoa trees to thrive

By Anthony Myers

- Last updated on GMT

Barry Callebaut said it is creating ecosystem corridors between farms with the aim to bring back the ecosphere of forests. Pic: Barry Callebaut
Barry Callebaut said it is creating ecosystem corridors between farms with the aim to bring back the ecosphere of forests. Pic: Barry Callebaut

Related tags Barry callebaut Cocoa deforestation

Biochar, known as ‘agriculture's black gold’ is made from agricultural waste, such as weeds, leaves and cocoa pods, and can be used as a natural fertilizer to improve soil quality.

Agri-business giant Barry Callebaut said over the past two years it has run field trials in Ghana and Indonesia, and also at various research institutions in Germany and the UK, to test which biochar formulation works most effectively on cocoa and other native tree species found in cocoa growing areas.

Climate change, poor soil, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and a lack of natural inputs, such as shade and pollinators, are adding more pressure on cocoa farmers who are already experiencing declining cocoa yields.

Optimal cocoa farm

According to Barry Callebaut, if you ask a farmer what an optimal cocoa farm looks like, they will describe it as having steady and optimum cocoa yields without the additional costs of purchasing inputs such as fertilizer or agrochemicals.

To stop further encroachment into protected forest areas, cocoa farmers need to be equipped to increase the amount of cocoa they grow on the same, or even less, land​,” the Swiss cocoa and chocolate supplier said.

The company said its commitment to biodiversity is focused on both on-farm and off-farm activities, including soil regeneration and the creation of carbon sinks, agroforestry and the regeneration of natural ecosystems.

Biochar can enhance living soils and create carbon sinks. Simply put, while trees can ‘temporarily remove’ carbon from the atmosphere, biochar applied to soil can capture carbon and store it for hundreds of years, thus creating a permanent carbon storage.

Consumer demand

Originating from the Amazon basin, cocoa’s natural habitat lies under the shade canopies of humid rainforests. Today, most of the world's cocoa comes from small, sun-drenched farms in West Africa. Driven by increasing consumer demand, cocoa farming encroachment into forests and other lands, has caused deforestation and habitat degradation. A highly biodiverse cocoa farm has been shown to be drought, disease, and pest resilient, and produce higher yields.

As part of its  Forever Chocolate​ plan ‘to make sustainable chocolate the norm’, Barry Callebaut said it is committed to be carbon and forest positive by 2025 – and biodiversity is a key driver to continue its  progress.

By reducing our carbon footprint and achieving a deforestation free supply chain, we will help to preserve ecosystems and increase the long-term productivity of cocoa in environmentally suitable areas​,” it said.

The company said it has recently received new confirmation that its biochar has positively affected both the root size and growth of the cocoa tree.

This means, planting new seedlings with biochar can greatly increase the survival rate of those trees. As a result, cocoa plants will be healthier and more resistant to heat, drought and disease, reducing the need for agro-chemicals.

Barry Callebaut said that going forward, its plan in 2022 is to use biochar at large scale for planting both cocoa and non-cocoa trees – boosting its nursery production facilities in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, Brazil, Ecuador and Indonesia.

Our nurseries are stocked with both cocoa and non-cocoa seedlings and in Cote d’Ivoire, for example, we are distributing close to 1 million seedlings in 2021, with species including cocoa, teak, mahogany, sugar palm, coconut and mandarin​,” it claimed.

In addition, it is working closely with farmers to provide technical assistance and farm diagnostics, offering access to high-quality seedlings and support with the selection of non-cocoa trees, and importantly, assistance to increase the survival of the non-cocoa tree species, as well as restoring high-value ecosystems and restoring degraded forests.

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