Chocolate Challenges: The Social, Technological, and Environmental Issues Facing the Cocoa Industry

Authors: Elizabeth Holloway, Krystal Arielle Kagy, Manas Mahaddalkar, Jack Ryan Miller, Ryan Thomas Murray, Kody Allen Sjoblo

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By the year 2020, most of the global supply of cocoa will be diminished due to low yields in the Ivory Coast region. This is intensified by the rise in global demand for chocolate, as developing countries like China have recently shown an increase in cocoa consumption. There are also a number of environmental and economic factors that compound this issue. Fungal diseases, smaller harvests, aging trees, labor demands, and inconsistent rains are impacting local cocoa yields.

Although cocoa is a global product, it is primarily concentrated in the Ivory Coast and other West African regions, keeping the production localized. Unfortunately, this localized supply chain does not support farmers’ interests, because the profit margin provided by the buyers is low and it’s hard to sustain the crop. The government in the Ivory Coast has little to no say in the local cocoa market, which has promoted international companies to have ownership over the majority of the cocoa supply chain to their own benefit, thereby driving the traditional cocoa farmers to cultivate other high-yielding crops.

There are many promising solutions to the above listed problems. In order to foster economic stability some foreign companies are creating local sustainability by helping farmers improve the quality of fields and promoting humane and equitable labor conditions. Other African countries are engaging in partnerships to strengthen the local industry. Interests in biodiversity also include promising alternative methods that support sustainability. Additionally, new efforts to develop GM cocoa plants may make harvests more productive.

The cocoa industry is currently under the stress of many economic and environmental threats. But many possible solutions exist that can provide support and future sustainability to key areas of this industry. One option toward a more sustainable future for cocoa is one of increased biotechnology that stops short of genetic modification. Despite the promising outcomes in yield increases from genetic modification, there is risk involved with consumer adoption of a GMO cocoa product, which could be why there are no GMO cocoa seeds available (Rupp, 2015). This indicates that the positive changes in the cocoa industry have thus far not involved genetic modification, but rather are using the mapped cacao genome to direct selective breeding efforts. Dr. Schmitz states that “scientific discovery and fundamental understanding in food, agriculture, and health sectors offer critical business opportunities for…innovation.” (Schmitz, 2013). Tripling cacao yields is realistic, and will rely on the work of selective breeding and farmer education (Schmitz & Shapiro, 2015) with the help of biotechnology.  GMOs will not likely play a role in saving the future of chocolate, unless consumer opinions drastically change.

Another option that would enhance cocoa sustainability is improvements to the cocoa supply chain through reassessment of trade policies and international business practices. Africa still struggles with major human rights issues related to health and safety of workers. Additionally, trade and management issues such as international cocoa pricing, property rights, and environmental sustainability are becoming more of a concern as the global demand for cocoa increases (Capelle, 2008 February). Local African governments lack the infrastructure and funding to effectively manage these trade industries, leaving them to be shaped, and potentially abused, by foreign parties involved in the supply chain. As an example, although cocoa beans are grown and harvested locally in regions like the Ivory Coast, pricing is determined by international markets and often exploited by traders, who buy directly from farmers in small villages. These farmers have little to no knowledge of fluctuating market prices, nor do they have a way to enforce them. Traders are not subject to any consequences for this type of misconduct as international law surrounding these types of transactions is vague. Compounding this financial issue, importing countries, such as those in the European Union, subject cocoa to high taxes. In the end, the farmers receive only 40 per cent of the international market value for their cocoa beans (Cappelle, July 2008).

Soft laws, or laws that lack legal significance, are often the foundation for various international trade agreements responsible for the above described exploitation (Simmons, 1999). They are non-binding and lack obligations for NGO’s and businesses. They do however, have the potential to develop into future hard laws. Soft laws have created a point of controversy in the international community, and although their use is decreasing, they still allow foreign parties to take advantage of African trade vulnerabilities.  It is the responsibility of African trade partners to incorporate human rights and environmental sustainability practices into their international policies, bilateral, and multilateral agreements in ways that are legally binding. It is additionally important to detail criminal consequences of business trade violations as a further means of legal application. This is not only to the benefit of trade partners as current and future cocoa importers, but also to the benefit of the African workers in terms of quality of life.

It is important to consider environmental factors when looking at the sustainability of cocoa in Africa. Mass deforestation, lack of biodiversity, aging trees, pests, disease and climate change are major issues that have led to the decline of cocoa production (Kongor, 2017). One option to mitigate these issues, previously discussed, is to pursue GMO cocoa trees that may be more resistant to pests, disease or more extreme climate conditions. However, GMOs are still very controversial and may not be accepted by consumers anytime soon (Chow, 2015). The most viable solution may involve making more intelligent decisions about how and where cocoa is grown. Schroth lays out a plan to divide the cocoa belt of Africa into three zones based on its suitability to grow cocoa in the future (Schroth, 2017). Farmers and governments should invest in zones where cocoa tree growth is ideal and switch to other crops in zones where cocoa will no longer be suitable to survive. Research has also shown that diversification of trees can help combat pest, disease, land fertility and climate change (Schmitz, 2015). Farmers in the region have acknowledged these benefits and are making changes to diversify their fields to sustain the future of the cocoa crop (Dumont, 2014). Moving cocoa farms from profit centric mindset to sustainability centric mindset may help increase the longevity and stability of cocoa in the future.

Despite the benefits that these strategies in growing cocoa may present, there are still many challenges that must be overcome. On average cocoa farmers and workers earn less than $2 per day (“Scope and Benefits of Fair Trade,” 2015). This low level of income does not provide the means to reinvest in new cocoa tree farms or new crops that may help their existing farms. On their own, farmers would not be able to make the necessary changes that may increase the sustainability of their cocoa trees. Government intervention would likely be needed to help supplement these farmers. However, governments in this region are often weak making it difficult to help rebuild the infrastructure for these farms. As previously discussed, foreign parties often take advantage of these growers. Perhaps the solution is for these companies to invest in their growers instead of abusing them to promote long term sustainability and stability for cocoa. In this scenario the cocoa farmers will experience less strife and an increase in quality of life while the buyers obtain a steadier supply chain with less uncertainty for the future.

In order to create a more sustainable cocoa industry there are many social, technological, and environmental considerations that need attention. By supporting the local African cocoa production through legally binding international trade policies, all members of the supply chain can fairly retain a beneficial outcome. The local cocoa harvests will be better financially supported and their production better managed for longevity. This will also help to stabilize current and future foreign humanitarian efforts working to resolve local African conflict issues such as unsafe working conditions and unstable economies.

Local governments should strengthen and enforce laws protecting the cocoa supply chain, so that farmers can begin making the necessary changes to increase the sustainability of their cocoa farms. Environmental and climate issues are drastically affecting the production of cocoa. If nothing is done to combat this, much of the area growing the majority of the world’s cocoa will soon be unsuitable for cocoa production. This is why extension programs should be expanded to teach more farmers about sustainable farming practices, to diversify the types of trees on their farms, and to take climate change into consideration and make better decisions.  Funding for biotechnological research for cocoa and all food research should also increase, and consumers need to be educated about agriculture, the cocoa supply chain, and the complete falseness of GMO safety concerns. All future research should explore the complexities of how governments, environmentalists and farmers can create a course of action allowing for a stabilized supply chain and long-term sustainability of cocoa farms. Research has been performed in all of these areas, but a multi disciplined approach that balances technology, culture and globalization for cocoa is best for a realistic solution in West Africa.


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