From humble cocoa pods to your favourite afternoon snack, the journey of the cocoa beans from tree to bar, season after season is a complex and arduous process years in the making, and one that places enormous nutrient demands on the soil in which the cocoa is grown. During these growing and fruiting years, the environmental and social effects of the farming practices used can have vast implications for generations to come. As the global demand for chocolate is only expected to rise, it is now imperative that we engage more sustainable cocoa farming methods in order to have a viable industry in the years ahead.
We often hear the labels ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ being thrown around, but what exactly do they mean? In the simplest and truest terms, they refer to food that is produced in an ecologically sound and ethically responsible manner. This means implementing agricultural methods that not only help the trees while protecting the environment, but also the health and welfare of the animals, farmers, and communities involved. It is a holistic approach to food production that takes into account the wellbeing of the planet and all its inhabitants both now and for future generations.
Both producers and consumers are now making more ethical and eco-conscious choices when it comes to the products they use and the foods they consume. The global demand for sustainable cocoa is growing by 2-3% annually. With this shift from industrial-style agriculture towards more traditional methods of cocoa production (free of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and with increasing interest in agroforestry systems), nations like Trinidad & Tobago with its rich heritage in cocoa production, are poised to be world leaders in the sustainably produced cocoa market if the right strategies are adopted.
Shade Farming is just one of these preferred farming methods that not only minimize the use of destructive chemicals, but also produce higher quality cocoa. While alternative methods such as Sun Farming create higher yields in a shorter time span, the consequences of trees grown in direct sunlight are drastic. The lack of shade places greater nutrient demands on the soil by the plants, it encourages more weed undergrowth, and can make them more susceptible to diseases and pests, thereby forcing farmers to rely on unhealthy, expensive chemical inputs. These chemicals then trickle down into the water supply, damaging the local ecosystem and endangering the health of farmers and local populations. By growing cocoa under the protection of natural tree-cover, together with adequate plant and field care, the need for herbicides and pesticides can be dramatically reduced. Fortunately for us, cultivation here on our islands have largely always been under shade trees: the temporary shade using bananas and more permanent shade using immortelle trees.
As opposed to less sustainable monoculture systems, having a diverse variety of suitable shade trees returns more nutrients to the soil, helps with water conservation, encourages biodiversity, and reduces soil erosion and flooding. If they are fruit-bearing trees, they may provide a supplemental source of food and income to the farmer. Farmers can also profit immensely from the sustainable use of agricultural waste and by-products. Cocoa pod husks can be repurposed into various value-added products, including natural fertilizers, mulches, and livestock feed. As the largest generator of trash in the world (per capita), Trinidad and Tobago stand to gain much if we can learn to reduce and wisely reuse our agricultural wastes.
The importance of sustainable and organic cocoa farming is not only limited to environmental gains, but also benefits the local economy of farmers. Global organic chocolate sales have steadily increased in value, demanding a higher price than conventional cocoa at a range of $100-300/tonne. These higher premiums can help cover additional costs associated with organic cocoa production, and also contribute to Trinidad’s GDP.
In addition to supporting the financial capital of farmers, sustainable cocoa farming helps build their human capital by encouraging their active involvement throughout the entire production process. Farmers become supply chain managers who learn to operate their farms as businesses. Using this entrepreneurial mindset, they are motivated to make independent decisions and seek access to information and markets. Farmers are empowered and take pride in producing high-quality food. The capacity-building and business skills learned are passed down to younger generations and together serve as essential instruments in the development of our local communities.
So the next time you indulge in a delicious piece of organic chocolate, indulge guilt-free knowing that your chocolate was made with the finest natural ingredients backed by considerable personal effort on the part of your local organic cocoa producer. Not only will your taste buds and body thank you, but so will the environment and your local producers.