If we want to carry on eating chocolate, we need to change how we grow cocoa!

Science at work 14 April 2022
Current cocoa growing systems do not satisfy the requirements of most producers. They are not sustainable either, in the light of climate change. What with poverty, deforestation and diseases, the cocoa value chain needs to change urgently. In the run-up to Easter, take a (fresh) look at CIRAD's work to foster sustainable cocoa growing.
Women splitting cocoa pods (Vietnam) © E. Cros, CIRAD
Women splitting cocoa pods (Vietnam) © E. Cros, CIRAD

Women splitting cocoa pods (Vietnam) © E. Cros, CIRAD

Global cocoa consumption is constantly rising. However, productivity per farm remains low and variable from year to year. The overall rise in output can therefore be put down to the new areas planted, which are generally in forest zones and thus contribute to deforestation. "In Ghana, the world's second largest cocoa producer, we estimate that a quarter of the deforestation observed between 1990 and 2008 was a consequence of cocoa growing", say Martijn ten Hoopen and Stéphane Saj, cocoa value chain correspondents at CIRAD.

Over and above concerns about sustainability and preserving biodiversity, the low productivity of cocoa growing systems makes producers socioeconomically vulnerable, and indeed often extremely poor, particularly in West Africa.

"The predominant model, monoculture plantings, has reached the end of the road", Martijn ten Hoopen stresses. "What with the ageing existing cocoa plantations, some of which have been abandoned, the increasing scarcity of available forest zones, and the fact that diseases spread more quickly in monocultures… Not to mention the growing lack of zones suitable for cocoa, in the wake of climate change. Cocoa growing needs a revamp."

Agroforests: a productive, sustainable alternative

Cocoa was originally an understorey tree in the Amazon rainforest, sensitive to changes in temperature and requiring constant humidity levels. This is why it appreciates the shade and soil humidity found in agroforest systems. In Cameroon, CIRAD and IRAD have demonstrated that agroforestry is a viable alternative to cocoa monoculture, in terms of productivity, soil health and carbon sequestration, and the lifespan of cocoa trees. Moreover, the trees grown alongside cocoa boost producers' incomes, notably in the case of fruit crops (avocado, citrus, mango, banana, plantain, etc.).

Inventing the cocoa systems of the future

Ivory Coast and Ghana account for 43% and 20% of global cocoa production respectively. In those countries, the Cocoa4Future project is assessing the agro-environmental resilience of 150 cocoa plantings, both monocultures and agroforest plots. Within the next four years, the project should have developed new cocoa growing systems that are both sustainable and more beneficial for farmers.

Sustainable cocoa growing is also an issue for consumer countries

France, which is 20th on the list of cocoa consumer countries, has committed to change in the sector, with the launch in October 2021 of the French sustainable cocoa initiative, which fits in with the French National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation. The initiative rests on three commitments: improved incomes for cocoa producers; a ban on French cocoa imports from deforested areas; and an end to forced labour and child labour in producing regions. 

Cocoa growing in figures

Between 40 and 50 million people worldwide (including 5.5 million smallholders) rely on cocoa production, which currently totals 5 million tonnes a year. Some 70% comes from the "West African cocoa belt", which stretches from Ivory Coast to Cameroon. Europe, the world's largest consumer of this black gold, has a processing industry with an annual turnover of 62 billion euros.