Sustainable Cocoa

There has been a lot of debate lately over the sustainability of cocoa production. On July 7, posted a report that started with the following quote by John Mason of the Nature Conservation Research Council: “I think that in 20 years chocolate will be like caviar.” The report goes on to state that yields (cocoa harvested per hectare) are declining all over West Africa and that the new hybrid cocoa trees planted there contribute to soil degradation.

The rise in cocoa prices on the futures markets, of course, seems to reinforce that scenario. Although it’s still unclear how much of that price increase is the result of large investment funds joining the ranks of speculators, supposedly the markets sense the coming scarcity and therefore bid up the price.

But only five days earlier, the Chairman of Ghana’s COCOBOD announced that the country had more than doubled its cocoa output over the past eight years and that it was well on its way to producing 1 million tons of cocoa in 2010. And the Côte d’Ivoire’s FDPCC is beginning to implement a mass spraying campaign pioneered in Ghana earlier.

How do we square what seem to be contradictory pieces of evidence? Well, yesterday, the the Director General of the Cocoa Producers Alliance (COPAL), Sona Ebai gave some insight into what has been happening. In a speech at the Innovations Symposium of the World Cocoa Foundation, he pointed out that supply and demand in the last year have been almost matched, but that demand outstripped supply in five of the last eight years. He alluded to the role of speculative money in the current price increases but then went on to the real issue.

Most of the production increase in West Africa that has occurred in the last several years had been the result of bringing more land into cocoa production. In other words, instead of focusing on intensification–increasing productivity of each existing tree–farmers have practiced extensification–bringing more land in to production.

The sad story is that this is not a new insight. The very spread of cocoa production around the world has been driven by the fact that cocoa trees do best on new land, preferably previously unused forest land. I have previously mentioned the concept of “forest rent” introduced by François Ruf, the French Agronomist. Unused new forest land provides the cocoa farmer with a bonus of high productivity and low threat of pests and diseases, whereas attempts to replant an existing cocoa grove has always led to much lower productivity and much higher susceptibility to pests and diseases.

For farmers, there has always been a built-in incentive to clear new land for cocoa production simply because the economics were so much better. This works as long as there is land and it explains why cocoa moved from Latin America to Africa over a hundred years ago. Production in the latter simply could not keep up with increasing demand. For more information check out the excellent book Cocoa Pioneer Fronts by William Gervase Clarence-Smith.

It is obvious, that this is not sustainable in the long run. The farmers I spoke with in Western Ghana had already run into the land barrier. They had no more land available for expansion.

So what is the solution? Mr. Ebai focused on changing farmer behavior–focus on tree productivity rather than expand production, release some land for the production of other crops to improve income security and divert unproductive cocoa farmers into other professions.

I wonder what that means on the ground. Yes, there are farmer field schools that train farmers in becoming more productive; yes, the focus on diversification is important; yes, there maybe too many cocoa farmers. But whose responsibility is this? Who will pay for the additional training or transitioning farmers to a different profession? These questions, as usual remain unanswered.

John Mason is convinced that the problem can be solved if the resources are made available to work with farmers on creating a “mixed farming landscape” where cocoa is grown under shade trees and mixed with other crops. And he believes that the chocolate industry bears responsibility for contributing to that process. As I have said before, the industry must think of cocoa farmers in the same terms as it thinks of its shareholders. Responsibility only to latter is short-sighted and has contributed to the problem.

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