The disappearance of chocolate?
A friend who knew that I was a big chocolate lover (like a lot of us, happy addicts to legal soft drugs) had sent me a few times ago, to titillate me, an article from The International Business Times titled “Chocolate Shortage May Lead To Disappearance Within 40 Years, Scientists Say”. I always thought I was going to dig into it, but I quickly dodged the question so I didn’t start to get depressed by the idea, so I preferred to enjoy a few squares to get my saving dose of dopamine and endorphins.
It is now time to dig up this file to really find out if we French people, worried and not very optimistic by nature, heavy consumers of antidepressants, have anything to worry about and if we must start to stockpile chocolate bars in our garage for future food shortages…
As a reminder, the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is native to Central America, it was already cultivated by the Mayas and the Aztecs to make a medicinal fermented drink. Nowadays, cocoa is mainly cultivated in Africa (Western: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Central: Cameroon) with nearly 70% of world production. The rest of the world production comes from Asia (Indonesia) and South America (Ecuador, Brazil).
A tropical culture
The cocoa tree is a small tree (4 and 8 meters in culture, up to 15 meters in its natural state) which begins to produce flowers from 3 years old and fruits (pods) from 5 years old depending on the species. Generally, a cocoa tree produces fruits twice a year, each tree yielding between 40 and 75 fruits per year depending on the variety. Hybridizations being performed to obtain different tree characteristics.
Its cultivation, like coffee or tea, requires very specific conditions (temperature, precipitation, altitude, soil): a tropical climate (therefore hot, without a dry season between 21°C and 32°C, and humid all year round), 25°C being an ideal temperature. In the event of a dry season, irrigation becomes necessary.
The cocoa tree also needs shade. Cocoa is not cultivated in the open fields but in the forest. Historically, cocoa trees are grown in the first (lower) floors of the Amazon rainforest, under the shade of tall (canopy) trees, where atmospheric humidity is high and constant. But in other parts of the world where the cocoa tree has been introduced, it is often planted alternately with other taller trees (coconut palms, palms, bananas, avocados) to provide it with maximum shade.
Cocoa cultivation also requires good soil preparation before its establishment (deep, well-drained soils with a neutral slightly acidic pH), otherwise it will affect its growth, and good management of the regular supply of nutrients, in addition the decomposition of fallen leaves which are not sufficient in the context of intensive agriculture. Growers must therefore add nutrients and fertilizers (nitrogen, potassium, phosphate or urea, etc.) all year round.
Propensity to attack by pests and diseases
Pests (beetles, bugs, moths, aphids, mealy bugs, caterpillars, thrips, worms, etc.) and diseases (fungi, viruses, etc.) are very numerous and represent an important factor affecting the productivity and quality of the harvest, which requires the use of many phytosanitary products to limit infestation. The fruits of the cocoa tree are also attacked by rats or squirrels, which necessitates the use of anticoagulant rodenticides (Bromadiolone).
New climate issues
Today, the cocoa industry faces multiple challenges. Poor soil fertility conditions, ageing trees, uncontrolled use of chemicals and deforestation threaten the sustainability of cocoa production.
Due to climate change, the yield and quality of cocoa are affected by higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. By 2050, the world’s average temperature is expected to have risen so dramatically that many cocoa growing areas will be too hot to grow cocoa crops. Not to mention the pests that proliferate and become more and more difficult to manage.
To mitigate the impact of these inevitable changes, farmers should change their farming practices if they are to be able to continue to earn a living from this activity, including planting shade trees to lower the air temperature around. cocoa trees and fight against soil erosion due to heavy rains and better management of water and irrigation in anticipation of droughts.
Preserving an ecosystem around cocoa trees is also essential, insects are essential for pollination and ants and birds fight against pests. Maintaining the forest in and around production areas allows, in addition to providing shade, a natural supply of organic matter for more fertility and therefore more productivity. A better productivity being a remedy against expansion through deforestation and an additional source of income to finance new solutions to adapt to climatic constraints.
Consumers increasingly aware of this situation, as well as about the working conditions of farmers and their low incomes, are more and more turning to responsible products.
The major industrialists in the sector, such as Mars or Ferrero, have long been singled out for not worrying enough about the working conditions of cocoa producers (low wages, child labour, etc.) and deforestation have promised to buy only certified sustainable cocoa at dawn 2020 (announcement postponed to 2025 in the meantime…); perhaps a way of offloading the responsibility for the numerous abuses in this sector onto the certifying organisations, but at least things are moving forward.
Certification programs were created in 1992 such as the FAIRTRADE foundation, an organization born in the United Kingdom which labels products from sustainable crops and fair trade and which helps small producers to federate into cooperatives. A UTZ sustainability certification program was also launched in the Netherlands as early as 2002 for cocoa, coffee and tea crops. The UTZ program now certifies more than 700,000 operators in 21 countries. In January 2018, UTZ merged with Rainforest Alliance, (an NGO born in the 1980s to preserve the biodiversity and sustainability of the world’s forests), to set up a new common certification standard in June 2020. Its goal: to promote ‘sustainable agriculture and social (gender inequality, child labor, discrimination, etc.), environmental (global reduction and targeted bans on the use of toxic chemicals, limit deforestation) and economic (guaranteed minimum wage, bonuses) impacts , was to allow farmers to improve their income while protecting nature.
…with the scent of scandal
“Should …” because in recent years, several investigations by journalists have marred this idyllic picture. These organizations (FAIRTRADE, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, etc.) are accused of a certain laxity and of certifying cocoa farmers who contribute to deforestation and child labour, while consumers in the West pay a mark-up on their product, precisely to change the traditional system; this additional cost does not necessarily result in an improvement in the lives of these farmers (the other marketing argument) and the environment, or even the opposite according to these same journalists.
Perhaps in response to these issues and criticisms, and as a mea culpa, the new organization promises to improve its certification program, to suspend for a year certifications in countries where fraud has been discovered (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana) and to cleanse its own ranks (call to order for subcontracting audit firms, cancellation of certifications, etc.).
From this bad buzz, one can just hope that these organizations, now under the watchful eye of whistleblowers and journalists, are genuinely doing the work that we consumers are paying them for; a new scandal could permanently alter the trust consumers have in these organizations.
Ok, but what about my tablet?
I know… what only interests you is whether you are going to be able to pig out on chocolates till your old age.
We know that our addiction to chocolate (thank you to the manufacturers!) has been a major factor in legal and illegal deforestation (in Africa in particular, where cocoa mainly comes from). In the medium term, it seems to me more likely to find a chocolate substitute rather than to start a group therapy. In many Asian countries, for example, sweet red bean paste is historically more present than chocolate, you could visually hardly tell the difference.
In the short term, not to mention the social aspect that can always be combated, we have also seen that cocoa cultivation is only possible in very humid regions. With the changes induced by global warming and the decrease in rainfall in these tropical regions added to upheavals in ecosystems, it can be assumed that, as productivity decreases, demand becomes greater than supply, cocoa will then become a luxury product.
Perhaps … but, to remain on a note of hope (the opposite inducing a generalized counterproductive overconsumption!), We can also think that improvements in cultivation methods, hybridizations of cocoa trees more resistant to climate change or more radically, cocoa substitutes are still possible. When billions are at stake, manufacturers always find solutions to sustain their business. And in the case of chocolate, we are dealing with heavy weights.
UTZ : https://utz.org
Rainforest Alliance : https://www.rainforest-alliance.org
Fairtrade : https://www.fairtrade.net
Washington Post: “Chocolate companies sell ‘certified cocoa.’ But some of those farms use child labor, harm forests“.