The cacao or cocoa tree is one of the most important trees in the modern industrial world. It serves as the foundation of the hundred-billion-dollar chocolate industry that, on the other hand, supports more than 3.5 million people in West Africa and provides considerable economic revenues in countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
For starters, the cocoa tree or Theobroma cacao is an evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae, native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America. Its economic importance has led to its widespread cultivation across the globe, especially in African countries such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Nigeria, as well as in Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean or the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of the cocoa pod. While chocolate might seem easy to produce due to the apparent abundance of varied chocolate-based products in the global market, the truth is, there are prevailing challenges in cocoa production and the entire cocoa industry.
Natural Challenges in Growing Cocoa Trees
The cocoa tree is a tropical plant. This means that it only thrives in climates that alternate between hot and rainy weather. Furthermore, this means the tree can only be cultivated in regions near the equator.
Note that three is also somewhat delicate to cultivate further and maintain. The World Agroforestry Centre explains that it needs to be sheltered from direct sun and wind. Thus, it is a common practice for cacao farmers to plant trees under a canopy of shade or taller mother trees or plants such as banana, coconut, and rubber.
A fully-grown tree can still survive under direct sunlight. However, it grows best on small plots of land and under partial shades. The World Agroforestry Centre added that long-term exposure to direct sunlight stresses a coca tree resulting in poor yields.
Harvesting also takes time. After planting the seedlings in prepared lands, it would take 3 to 5 years before the trees could produce yields. A fully-grown tree can produce 20 to 30 cocoa pods within two harvests a year and it will remain productive for about 25 years.
It would require a sizeable cocoa plantation to achieve economies of scale and commercial productivity. Note that the entire whole-year harvests from a single tree only account for about 450 grams of consumer-grade chocolate.
Disease and Pests Affecting the Trees
A range of diseases and pests affects cocoa trees. The International Cocoa Organization mentioned that yield losses from these environmental factors have amounted to as high as 30 percent to 40 percent.
The Witches’ Broom disease caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa has affected Bahia in Brazil, decreasing output by 70 percent within a 10-year period. Frosty Pod Rot is another disease caused by the fungus Moniliophthora roreri that has affected Latin America and has resulted in significant output reduction, with other communities abandoning their cacao farms.
Insects can also stun plant development and tree growth while thwarting yields. For example, cocoa mirids can reduce yields on a farm by as high as 75 percent. The cocoa pod borer or cocoa moth, on the other hand, has resulted in an annual loss amounting to USD 40 million since its spread in 2000.
Issues Concerning Sustainable Cocoa Production
There have been reports about shortages in cocoa supply since the mid-2000s. Remember that there are natural environmental challenges in cocoa production. However, it is also important to highlight the impact of the ongoing climate emergency.
Climate change has resulted in abnormal weather conditions and severe weather disturbances that have affected cocoa-producing countries and regions around the world. Examples include prolonged periods of drought or extreme flooding. Furthermore, these conditions and disturbances have also promoted the spread of existing and novel diseases.
Farming and production practices also need to be more sustainable. Remember that a single tree can remain productive for 25 years. Several farms across the world have reached their peak or are nearing their peak.
Unsustainable farming pervades the cocoa industry. According to World Agroforestry Centre, in an attempt to boost production output, farmers have grown their farms far too expansive. This large-scale farming results in several problems in the long run.
First, expansive farms meant planting cacao trees closer together. This hastens disease outbreaks as parasites and pests can spread easily. Second, cocoa trees require a considerable amount of nutrition. Large and crowded farms easily deplete soils of nutrients. While farmers may depend on costly fertilizers, depleted soils would make the farmland unproductive in the future.
Unsustainable cocoa production also creates various environmental offshoots. Apart from soil nutrition depletion, farming has reduced forestlands, affected biodiversity, and increased susceptibility to large-scale chemical contamination due to fertilizer use.
Labor Concerns and Industrial Exploitation
Exploitation is one of the major challenges affecting cocoa production and the entire cocoa industry. It is troubling to note that although the cocoa tree is the foundation of a multibillion-dollar global chocolate industry, most cocoa farmers remain poor.
Some farmers who have produced cocoa beans for decades have never tasted chocolates nor have enough money to purchase consumer-grade chocolates sold in Western markets. Note that a particular farmer in West Africa only earns around USD 8 a day. This farmer has to divide this earning among his family and his laborers. This amount is a far cry from an actual price of a chocolate bar.
These farmers are at the very bottom of the entire chocolate industry. Intermediaries such as traders, processors, exporters, and manufacturers have pushed these people below the global supply chain. Thus, they have little bargaining power and are the recipient of the lowest amount of industry profits.
Child labor also pervades the industry. The industry has a century-long record of forced labor and child exploitation according to the International Labor Rights Forum. Because of low income, farmers could not afford the needed number of laborers, thus compelling them to tap children from their communities or through trafficking. When on these farms, these children are exposed to chemicals and long working hours.
Farmers are also growing old. Their children have an unfavorable perception toward cocoa production. They would rather plant and grow another crop or industrial plant such as rubber. Some prefer going to big cities to look for better economic opportunities.