Can Fair Trade Chocolate Curb the Looming Cocoa Shortage?

Mars_bar_bitten_Asim18The news seems dire: In seven years the world may be out of chocolate.

For most North Americans, doomsayers couldn’t paint a worse picture: first wine, and now chocolate may be out of reach by the average worker within a few years’ time. The cost for a simple chocolate bar is projected to become too expensive for the average person to afford in the near future.

Cocoa yields have been dropping across the world for years. In Ghana, crop harvests are down 5 percent from 2012, and more than 17 percent from 2011. In August, crop harvests in the Ivory Coast, which account for at least 40 percent of the world’s cocoa, were expected to drop during the fall harvest as well (cocoa is harvested twice a year in some areas).

Some experts are blaming the decreased production on pest infestation and not enough spraying of pesticides to ward off insects. Others have attributed it to increasing temperatures due to climate change that indirectly affect the delicate ecological balance that’s needed for cacao plantations. Cacao only grows in areas close to the equator in optimum conditions.

Yet other sources suggest that it is the age of the trees that is hampering the production. Some farmers in Ghana have been calling on the government to assist with replacing trees now, and to increase the spraying of older trees which are less able to sustain pest infestations. Cacao trees are slow growing and can take up to four years to produce their first harvest, so farmers must be able to rely upon old stocks (some of which are 60 years or older) while new trees are growing.

But what is the real problem at the heart of this cacao crisis? How could a plant that has been providing humans with confection for hundreds of years suddenly be suffering from not enough spraying, too much or too little sun, too old or too young trees? And which is the real culprit?

To get a real picture of what is happening with cocoa harvests, we reached out to a chocolate producer in Seattle. As is so often the case, we reasoned, when you need an answer, go to the natural, un-embellished source, where human technology is based on practices that have been used for hundreds of years.

To do this, we contacted Theo Chocolate. A fair-trade company that gets its cocoa from IMO-certified cocoa farms in the Congo, an area not known for cacao production, but which like its nearby neighbors, straddles the equator in West Africa.

Theo's_Chocolate_Logo_EvanAccording to Debra Music, president of Sales and Marketing for Theo Chocolate, Fair Trade chocolate producers aren’t experiencing the same shortages as non-Fair Trade companies. Theo’s cocoa source is still going strong.

“Based on our understanding and our experience, there is no imminent cocoa shortage,” says Music. “Because we purchase our cocoa at a premium based on quality, we’re not subject to the price fluctuations catalyzed by the cocoa futures market.”

An article published by Candy USA supports what Music is saying. In a special report published in the July/August 2013 edition of the Candy and Snack Magazine, the authors look at the efforts that are now underway to change the way cocoa is grown, harvested and produced. Companies like Mars, Inc., which projected cocoa shortages in 2011, are leading a push to improve sustainable farming in the chocolate industry and have found that it is not the absence of pesticides that is killing cacao plants and reducing yields, but the overabundance of non-sustainable farming practices.

To combat this problem, programs like Cocoa Livelihoods are teaching cocoa farmers sustainable farming methods and helping them network with funding partners. A program of the World Cocoa Foundation, it works to strengthen the small farmer’s standard of living and access to education. Certification programs like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance educate and certify farmers in sustainable production techniques that don’t promote pesticide-resistant ecology and deforestation.

So is there a cocoa crisis looming in the near future? Will chocolate be out of reach as a confection in the next decade? Will global warming make it too costly a crop to grow for small farmers who are dependent on the land?

As with so many dire predictions, that may depend upon how willing we are to listen to Mother Nature and heed our inclination to step up cocoa production for the sake of increasing demand. And that, after hundreds of years of mass production, may be the tough part.


Mars bar by Asim18

Theo Chocolate logo by Evan

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

2 responses

  1. I appreciate the spirit of this article but have to point out that it conflates two separate things, and that it’s missing one of the most important take-aways.

    First, the conflation: On the one hand it discusses the _global_ supply of cocoa and if it’s declining. But it contrasts that with the story of a single, small chocolate company. It’s like sizing up the health of the world auto industry by looking at Tesla.

    Our company, Equal Exchange, is like the company cited, Theo, in that we both always pay high prices to small-scale organic farmers. And we’re both small players in the industry. Therefore it’s not surprising that we can consistently secure plenty of high quality cocoa in an industry where they big corporations (Mars, Hershey, Nestle, Cargill, etc) always pay as little as possible.

    Second, the take-away (which I think the writer may have had in mind): The profit-first mentality of the global cocoa/chocolate industry has consistently depressed the prices paid to farmers, so much so that they cannot afford to properly tend their farms or otherwise invest much into cacao production, or they simply cannot justify doing so. Instead they switch crops, or look for off-farm employment, whatever.

    The point is that the big cocoa/chocolate businesses have been slowly killing the goose that lays chocolate eggs. The reality for most cacao farmers, most of the time, is that they get too little for their hard work in cacao and for the many risks they face. And what they get is unpredictable year to year, too. So they’ve been slowly switching to other crops &/or other work.

    This is where Fair Trade companies like Equal Exchange, Camino, TCHO, Theo, & Divine do fit into the story. We’re modeling a different approach where farmers (and in particular farmer-owned co-operatives) consistently get sufficiently high prices (& other forms of support) to not only farm cacao, but to do it sustainably.

    While it’s true the global cacao/chocolate industry are making some investments re: farm _yield_, & crop loss, etc. (because they need and want higher global production that will in turn lead to surpluses which lead to lower prices) the one thing they refuse to really confront is the need for farmers to reliably get much higher prices. And while the current interventions may or may not lead to enough cacao production to keep up with global chocolate consumption we can predict that they’re not going to appreciably raise the standard of living for the millions who grow cacao for a living.

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