A leap forward for sustainable cocoa production

06 December 2017

USDA in Ghana

I’m all for guilty pleasures - but I’d prefer my guilty pleasures to be guilt-free. If you see what I mean.

Chocolate is the guilty pleasure that comes most to mind at this time of year. It’s on mine particularly as I begin to get the hang of tempering chocolate and making my own couture chocolates for fun, if not specifically for profit. This is as good as it gets - so long as the supply of cocoa comes with the right pedigree.

Deforestation has become a huge issue in the West Africa countries of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Over a ten year period, over 2 million hectares of forest has been cleared in Côte d’Ivoire, and 820,000 in Ghana. Cocoa production by smallholder farmers is thought to have caused about a quarter of this deforestation. As with palm oil, you have plants here that produce perfectly fine products in theoretically sustainable ways - but it comes down to the human practices and infrastructure around them that determines whether they are actually sustainable or not.

But we do make progress. At the most recent conference on climate change (COP23), leading chocolate companies have joined with the two governments to announce ‘Frameworks for Action’ to end deforestation and restore some of the forest areas that have been lost. In particular, the agreement specifies no further conversion of any forest land for cocoa production. The aim is to use modern best practices to produce more cocoa from less land, and to shine a light on what happens currently out of sight.

It’s not as though it’s a straightforward proposition. A lot of cocoa production that takes place in national parks is already illegal. Simply making something legal or not is only part of the battle - it comes down to enforcement by governments, as well as the action by companies.

Cocoa farming in Ghana

The chocolate industry companies have agreed to put in place verifiable monitoring systems so they can trace where the cocoa they buy has come from. This is key because in the past so much cocoa has been traded on the open market with zero traceability. So the people buying that cocoa had no guarantees about whether its production had involved deforestation, or child labour, or any one of the other problems that can be a part of cocoa production.

Although the agreement involves two countries, it actually covered around 80 percent of global cocoa usage, so if it sticks, it could be a pretty big deal in cleaning up how cocoa is produced. 

Companies that have signed up include many of the biggest players: Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Ferrero, General Mills, Hershey, Mars Wrigley, Mondelez, Nestlé, Sainsbury’s and others, with more expected to join over the coming months. Many of those companies already follow their own programmes to boost sustainability in their own supply chains - but ultimately this is one area where there is much more to be gained by collaborating industry-wide than simply going it alone.

Right now, you still need to ask questions of the companies whose chocolate you buy. But maybe the time is coming where this will be one crop that has made significant progress towards resolving some of the big issues and which can safely be indulged with only the right sort of guilt.