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IS COCOA FARMING AT A STRATEGIC INFLECTION POINT?

November 1, 2021

InCocoa held a webinar Oct. 20, 2021 designed to provide the cocoa research community an opportunity to share their views on the challenges facing cocoa production. The webinar was particularly eye-opening for me in terms of the sharp dichotomy between the two major espoused viewpoints: the camp of agroforestry, and that of intensified modernized production. I came away from the day wondering whether these two streams were incompatible, and thinking about the social, environmental, historical, political, and cultural undercurrents that prop up these viewpoints.

In Israel, the home of the CCC, agriculture by definition is intensive and innovative.  It couldn’t be any other way, because the climate, environment, cost of inputs and standard of living are inhospitable for any other type of mainstream farming. That’s why we wring every possible kg of produce out each liter of (mainly reclaimed) water, and why we shape the agricultural environment to do whatever it takes to maximize yield, yield quality, and revenue, and to minimize the proportion of the population making a livelihood from farming.

Our local reality is what drives the CCC perspective towards intensified mechanized production of cacao. This includes a full 360o viewpoint – in other words, from nursery to field to factory to market, from waste to resource, and diversified income streams. Ultimately, everyone’s local reality should drive their standpoint.

The proponents of agroforestry systems have a different perspective. They like cocoa growing to be integrated into low intensity forest settings that support soil biodiversity and soil ecosystem services, plant health, and carbon sequestration, while minimizing external inputs, maximizing adult working hands, and eliminating deforestation. This is not far different from how the main proportion of cocoa is grown today West Africa, responsible for about 70% of the world’s cocoa crop. Agroforestry supporters think that if biodiversity and carbon sequestration were to be monetized, farmers’ livelihoods would be improved. Unfortunately, so far it has been difficult to find the consumers, industries and governments willing to pay such an added value tax. Even the Living Income Differential negotiated between Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana is apparently getting push-back from the cocoa-buying organizations.

One of the webinar participants wistfully asked how cacao production in agroforestry systems can be improved so that 5 million cocoa farmers can make good livelihoods. Prof. Pathmanathan Umaharan, long-time Director of the UWI Cocoa Research Centre, smiled wanly and answered: this cannot be done when 5 million farmers produce the global supply of 5 million tons of cocoa yearly, considering that one ton of beans sells for about $2500. Continuing, he lamented the “romanticization” of growing cocoa. Why is cocoa seen differently from every other crop on the planet? It is a major commodity crop – one of the top tree crops in the world. Why should it be relegated to the forests instead of receiving the intensive investment in research and development it deserves so that it can be grown in a modern manner? Why is cocoa still an orphan crop that no one knows even how to fertilize for optimal performance, let alone about items of critical importance for modernizing efficient production: shade requirements, pollination, self-compatibility, water needs, integrated pest management, harvest and post-harvest treatment, tree architecture, and more.

Is cocoa agroforestry needed if intensification of cocoa farming is economical? Wouldn’t yields higher by 10 to 20-fold in modernized orchard settings make deforestation and child labor irrelevant? Major multinational trading, processing and producing companies are starting to invest large sums of money to explore modernization and mechanization this very moment. These companies are in the business of making money, not romance; take a look at Voice – Cocoa Barometer 2020.


Cocoa-producing countries need to decide for themselves if they should be fighting against the tide of intensification, or welcoming and engaging with it. Or, yet better – racing ahead to lead it. Otherwise, they may get left behind, because ignoring or railing against innovation doesn’t make it go away. Anyone with doubts about this will do well to consult Andrew Grove’s book: Only the Paranoid Survive. I think that cocoa growing is at one of Grove’s strategic inflection points at this very moment, and I’m worried about the future...

DOES CLIMATE CHANGE MEAN WE WILL NEED TO EAT SYNTHETIC CHOCOLATE?

August 22, 2021

Recently there have been news releases by some European start-ups striving to replace cocoa with something they manufacture on a laboratory bench-top. The latest is a company in Germany that wants to replace your chocolate with a lab-synthesized version.

Here at the Cocoa Cure Center, we don't think this is such a great idea, for a number of reasons. One is admittedly a "knee-jerk reaction" - we still remember trans-fats - marketed for years as the superior and healthy substitute for natural fats and oils. That didn't turn out too well. Besides this, the company justifies their product with the claim that cocoa farming leads inevitably to deforestation, which is rather a problematic argument. Cocoa farmers in West Africa (the source of 70% of cocoa globally) are amongst the poorest people on the planet. It's the wealthy cocoa-importing and processing countries which reap the big money of the chocolate market. The farmers don't have the capital they need to improve their soils and rejuvenate their forests, which would then bring higher yield efficiency per unit area. This would reduce pressure to move into virgin forests to grow cocoa. The company’s argument about excessively high water consumption by the cocoa tree is altogether perplexing - cocoa is grown almost exclusively in the tropical belt, and is naturally rainfed. Rarely is supplemental water supplied, which is a shame, because a bit of water at the right time (e.g., in the middle of an especially long dry season) could do wonders for improving yield and reducing crop stress and tree mortality. Having stronger and healthier trees that aren’t stressed for water would help them withstand pests and pathogens better. Much more acute dangers to the environment come from illegal and legal mining for gold, bauxite and other minerals than from growing cocoa. Those actions actively poison the soil, water and air. And, if we continue in the environmental vein for another moment, what will be the source of the raw materials used for creating lab-synthesized cocoa? Petroleum-based organic compounds? Plant-based compounds from farming other crops, with their own environmental footprint? Perhaps even palm oil –  the cause of massive deforestation around the world?

At the Cocoa Cure Center, Israel, we are looking for solutions for ‘Saving Chocolate’ that don’t involve creating it in an Erlenmeyer flask. We are learning how to intensify cocoa farming sustainably, improve tree health and stamina, modernize post-harvest methods and processes, and repurpose pod husk wastes to bring added value and additional industries to the farmers. Economically stronger farmers will be able to send their children to school instead of needing their help in the forests.

Tens of millions of people make their living from cocoa along the value chain in West Africa.  It is a major source of foreign income in the cocoa-producing countries there. This economic driver needs to be shored up, not shorn off.

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