How many trees for a chocolate fix?

By Ake Mamo and Philippe Vaast

The Chocolate Bar. Illustrated for Agroforestry Systems by CaStudio


‘Chocolate has begun a journey from being very loved and very common, like beer, to being very loved and a good deal less common, like Bordeaux.”  said Mark Shatzker of Bloomberg, asking whether Science can Save the World’s Most Endangered Treat’. The ‘Great Chocolate Scare’ – a possible shortfall of two million tons of chocolate per year by 2030, has recently been a trending issue on social media. But before you get too worried about where your next chocolate bar is coming from, spare a thought for the farmers trying to produce cocoa and the real impact of cocoa production on the global environment.

Over the last half a century, cocoa cultivation has led to large scale deforestation accounting for the conversion of around 15 million ha of tropical forests, including 2 million ha in Cote d’Ivoire, 1.5 million ha in Ghana and over a million ha in Indonesia.  Current cocoa production extends over 10 million ha – an area the size of Portugal.

Growing world demand for  cocoa, expanding annually  at a rate of 1-2 %, is leading the cocoa industry to promote more and more intensive cocoa cultivation. Unchecked, this could result in widespread deforestation on the last remaining predominantly primary forest fronts, such as the Congo basin, as well as existing cocoa being replaced either by other agricultural commodities, or by less resilient and less environmentally friendly production practices. Worrying trends but the good news is that science does offer guilt free cocoa production options.

Exactly how this can be done is the subject of a timely special issue of the International Journal, Agroforestry Systems, just out this month. This comprises  13 articles that demonstrate how multi-disciplinary approaches can be used to simultaneously increase cocoa yield, whilst managing trade-offs with environmental services at farm and landscape scales.

One of the main problems, the scientists argue, is with some of the management strategies currently advocated – such as full sun intensification, that rely more heavily on new cocoa varieties or high external inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides to boost yields.  But shade trees in cocoa farms should not to be mistaken for umbrellas.  They provide a range of ecosystem services such as food crop productivity, climate adaptation, pest and disease suppression, pollination, water quality and yield from watersheds, soil fertility, and carbon sequestration.

Reducing, or, in some cases, total removal of tree shade to achieve higher cocoa yields thus ignores their multifunctional role, and has major implications for the loss of a range of tree species from cocoa farms, that not only diversify livelihood options for farmers but help them cope with shocks, such as fluctuating cocoa prices.

There is  also very little scientific evidence supporting the notion that removing shade trees leads to higher cocoa yield, especially in the long term.

Faith in the efficacy of full sun cocoa is based on limited results of only a handful of studies in the main cocoa producing regions of the world: West Africa and America. In West Africa, only two published studies were found documenting the beneficial effect of removing shade for achieving higher yield, one focused on the effect of a single shade tree species (Terminalia ivorensis) whilst the other is a short term evaluation on a single cocoa cultivar.

And if we look at soil health, it is after all the International Year of the Soil in two weeks, the soil fertility of cocoa farms established on forest land declines rapidly in full sun. Unless farmers use fertilizer which they often cannot afford, cocoa yield collapses within less than 20 years. Moreover, inorganic fertilizers don’t maintain soil physical properties such as structure and porosity, soil microbial activity or organic matter content that are key to maintaining soil health and consequently the sustainability of cocoa production.

What Agroforestry does is offer opportunities for integrated management through the use of innovative practices that provide agronomic benefits to improve cocoa yield while maintaining ecosystem integrity.  Management recommendations about shade regulation, for example, are important. By selecting appropriate tree species, with the right tree spacing and pruning regimes at critical times in the production cycle (during flowering or during wet conditions), benefits from trees can be maximized while minimizing competition with cocoa.

Shade trees planted with cocoa can also act as biological control agents by maintaining populations of natural enemies, or non-host tree species acting as barriers to the spread of pests and diseases – particularly important in the case of the cocoa swollen shoot virus in West Africa.

The key aspect to remember, according to Fergus Sinclair of ICRAF (the World Agroforestry Centre) “is that selection of tree species and combinations is likely to be most effective where farmers participate so that their goals and aspirations are taken into account, and their local agroforestry knowledge is incorporated into the design and management of the system.”

The results published in the special issue, summarized by Philippe Vaast and Eduardo Somarriba provide comprehensive, concrete opportunities and explanations  on how shade trees address  a variety of issues related to cocoa production –  such as improving the livelihoods of rural families through production of timber, fruits, fuelwood and other products; reduction of risk with respect to cocoa price volatility via revenue diversification; reducing pest and disease outbreaks; adaptation to climate change, including reducing water and heat stress; the conservation of biodiversity, including eco-certification;  carbon storage; capital accumulation and more.

So, yes agroforestry can contribute to sustainable cocoa production through a series of locally adapted innovative options targeted at smallholder cocoa producers, most of whom have never tasted chocolate themselves.





Funding support of this special issue on cocoa agroforestry was provided by the Forest Trees and Agroforesty Research programme of the CGIAR, CATIE, CIRAD and ICRAF.

For the full issue, access:  Special Issue on Cocoa Agroforestry. Volume 88, Issue 6, December 2014

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