How the cocoa industry could end deforestation in West Africa

Despite a significant increase in corporate sustainability efforts in the cocoa sector, it is almost impossible for most chocolate consumers to know the extent of tropical deforestation associated with their sugary luxuries.

The cocoa bean is the fundamental and irreplaceable ingredient in chocolate. Cocoa beans come from trees that require specific climates and pollination systems. These conditions are found in and around tropical forest ecosystems.

As global demand for chocolate is increasing due to the growing awareness of the potential health benefits dark chocolate and increased disposable income in emerging economies, cocoa plantations are replacing the last remaining biodiversity hot spots.

Cocoa production is highly concentrated in a few West African countries. Ivory Coast and Ghana together produce about 62 percent cocoa in the world.

Despite recent media attention exposing the illegal deforestation of cocoa cultivation in critical protected ecosystems, these countries have recently experienced the highest rate of deforestation increase in the world.

In 2018, Ghana experienced a 60% increase in forest loss compared to 2017, the largest annual increase in the world. Côte d’Ivoire was second with 26 percent. Deforestation has irreversible negative impacts on biodiversity, soil health and the adaptive capacity of ecosystems in the face of climate change.

With my team from the University of Victoria, my research project Follow the Bean: Tracing Zero Deforestation Cocoa identified three of the main challenges to halt deforestation integrated into global cocoa supply chains.

The “first mile” of supply chain traceability

The first challenge lies in the need to know the precise origins of cocoa beans in order to determine whether the farm where they were grown has replaced the primary forest. Tracing cocoa beans down to the farm level is particularly difficult in the West African cocoa sector as production is spread among millions of people. small farms of around three to five hectares.

Cocoa is usually produced on small farms because it is difficult to introduce machinery to do the job. Cocoa trees require regular pruning and chemical treatments to control pests and diseases. In addition, the fruits that produce the cocoa beans ripen intermittently, so farmers harvest by hand.

A farmer dries recently harvested cocoa beans in the sun.
(Sophia Carodenuto), Author provided

No one knows exactly how many cocoa farmers operate in the West African region. Past estimates suggest two million farmers depend on cocoa in the region, which is probably underestimated given a recent study 1.5 million children working in cocoa plantations.

Due to the complexity of local land tenure, farm boundaries are generally not publicly recorded. The lack of a public map of small cocoa producers makes it difficult to know precisely where the cocoa comes from.

Some open source cards are now tracing cocoa down to the cooperative level. A major challenge going forward will be to trace cocoa from the farm to the first point of aggregation in the supply chain, also known as traceability of the “first mile”. This is important because not all cocoa goes through cooperatives.

The indirect supply chain

the US $ 140 billion from the chocolate industry the most recent response to the challenge of deforestation has been the creation of sustainability programs for their direct supply chains. However, estimates suggest that at least half of the cocoa supply in Côte d’Ivoire is of indirect origin.

Indirect sourcing means that cocoa is purchased through local traders, many of whom operate informally with limited public control. Very little is known about these local traders, although they generally have a bad reputation for taking advantage of vulnerable farmers who need immediate cash.



Read more:
Ghana’s cocoa production relies on the environment, which needs better protection


Sustainability programs often aim to eliminate these intermediaries. However, given the prevalence of the indirect supply chain, this solution could lead to significant unemployment and related socio-economic implications in areas where the rural economy is entirely dependent on cocoa production and trade.

Together with Janina catches, our collaborative research aims to explore if and how traders, including informal traders, could help roll out sustainability programs. Since traders are often the farmers’ only point of contact with the supply chain, their role in relaying information and encouraging improvements in production practices can be essential.

Power and responsibility

Cocoa is one of the most consolidated sectors in the world, with three companies control 60 percent of the cocoa traded in the world. These companies are not consumer-oriented with well-known brands and for many people they could be “the biggest company you’ve never heard ofAccording to Ian Welsh of the Innovation Forum.

A long aisle with shelves of candy bars.
Chocolate bars line the shelves of a supermarket in Russia.
(Shutterstock)

This situation brings with it opportunities but also risks. On the one hand, companies are increasingly partnering with governments, think tanks and civil society organizations to achieve sustainability goals. On the other hand, the big players in the cocoa industry are increasingly inclined to abandon third-party sustainability standards such as fair trade, instead opting to design and implement their own sustainable sourcing programs.

In this situation, companies themselves choose what information to disclose to their customers. Corporate sustainability reports Often depicts happy cocoa farmers who have benefited from their sustainability programs, but customers are unaware of the complexity of issues such as indirect sourcing.

What to do?

Though there is artisanal chocolatiers making small batches of chocolate products from bean to bar, the vast majority of chocolate consumers will remain in the dark and unable to determine the impacts of their purchases until governments, industry and consumers demand more accountability.

For most conventional chocolate products, it remains impossible to trace the origins of cocoa to the extent necessary to determine deforestation. However, independent reviews such as the Chocolate dashboard are making great strides in providing transparency to consumers interested in purchasing “ethical” chocolate.


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About Jamie Collins

Jamie Collins

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