There’s no quick fix for cocoa. Many countries struggle with the same social issues related to major cacao production, but some of those same countries are mobilizing to address the issues. It’s not just intensively-farmed cocoa which can have a negative impact upon the environment, but also poorly-managed farms and under-educated farmers. The rapid loss of the rainforest and other highly-biodiverse areas is just one factor motivating more sustainable and ethical cacao farming. When a farm is properly managed, it can produce more and higher-quality cacao, fetching more income to use in addressing related issues.
The major sustainability and ethical issues in modern cacao farming are labor, gender equality, and loss of biodiversity, each in turn causing further problems with poverty and education.
Increasing sustainability in cacao production comes down to efficient use of resources and farm management, and diversification in pursuit of lowering resource use. This means that farmers need to better distribute their fertilizer and pesticides, ensuring they’re caring for trees and driving off or avoiding pests which could harm them. The use of fertilizers and pesticides is quite common on cacao plantations, especially in West Africa, which has the highest-intensity cocoa cultivation of anywhere in the world. This is expensive for farmers, even with government subsidies, and it’s harmful for the soil and can leach out to other parts of the farm, as well as causing farmers to depend upon outside inputs.
When a farmer can’t maintain or replace old trees, or the soil can no longer support them even with fertilizer and pesticides, farmers often expand into uncultivated farmland or rain forest. Countries like the Philippines are combating this and increasing annual yields by encouraging farmers to plant cacao trees underneath existing shade trees, such as coconut, to add more value to land already being used. Other countries see producers working to transform cacao waste products by making them into liquors, fertilizer, cacao tea, and recently, cacao honey or sugar. While value addition of this sort is not always possible, increasing cultivation of other crops can go a long way towards increasing income and decreasing dependence upon subsidies and familial labor.
Selective breeding of cocoa varietals and free training of farmers is another step forward for countries looking to increase sustainability in the cocoa sector. Better-educated farmers make better decisions for their farm both currently and in the future, increasing the possibility it will still exist in a few decades.
Free training for local farmers can raise education levels among farmers, as well as increase interest in farming amongst younger generations. But long-term partnerships with cocoa-buying nations could be a step towards increasing and stabilizing market prices for farmers. This would free up farmers to consider how best to design their farms and which crops they grow, to overall maximize profits and minimize environmental impact. In cases where the government controls all cocoa exports, this may mean international agreements between countries.
In 2019, efforts of farmers in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to increase the minimum price paid by the government— which is not the price which farmers get (LINK Cocoa Value Chain)— is a step in the right direction towards empowering themselves. Well-designed farms mix high-value crops with those for local consumption and those which act as natural repellent and fertilizer, turning the farm into a less expensive closed system. But developing such a system takes time and money, neither of which is easy to come by if your crops aren’t bringing in enough income to feed your family and educate your children.
Craft chocolate makers work to source directly from farmers. When that’s not possible, they work with companies which purchase directly from farmers, so as to shorten the number of hands the cacao passes through (and increase how much money goes back to farmers).