Since the advent of farming, growers have been engaged in a timeless battle with nature. Harsh weather conditions, pests, and disease decimate growing fields and reduce crop supplies. As a result, farmers are fighting to preserve their crops and livelihoods. An increasing global population has fueled the demand for food, putting farmers under more pressure to investigate methods to improve existing crop production and expand the capabilities of growing fields. As farmers work to meet global demand, there are more than food supplies at stake. Perhaps most alarming to some is the diminishing cocoa supply that threatens to affect chocolate production over the course of the next five to 10 years.
A Look Back
Deep in the Amazon, the birthplace of chocolate, farmers collect cocoa pods in much the same way as their ancestors did. Not much has changed in the fields among the cocoa plants. Cocoa farming is a labor-intensive process that involves the use of machetes and other dangerous tools to grow and harvest crops. In order to manage demand, a large numbers of workers is needed to harvest and produce the cocoa plants scattered across the countryside on small farms.
Similarly, farmers on the other side of the world are producing cocoa in the same manner of their ancestors, although they are generally working on larger farms. Cocoa farming is a family affair, as well, with both young and old working alongside one another in the fields that their forefathers planted.
Ghana, the number-two cocoa producer in the world, is struggling to meet the demands of chocolate users. A higher demand for chocolate in China and India, where chocolate was once considered a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, has added to the need. With the emergence of new markets, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of chocolate needed, and costs have increased nearly 40% in the last five years. Government subsidies, which are designed to support and maintain cocoa growers, have changed. Instead of supplying farmers with fertilizer and seedlings, they paid higher subsidies and required farmers to purchase the needed supplies. However, the plan backfired. Farmers grew accustomed to higher payouts, but neglected to purchase fertilizer, so the crops suffered. Others simply decided that the effort to grow cocoa was too labor intensive and sold their fields to gold prospectors. While government officials have reverted the subsidy program back to the original plan, cocoa companies fear that it may be too late.
A lack of rainfall threatens the crops, as well. The worst drought in over 30 years is wreaking havoc on the fields, coupled with dusty winds that have damaged cocoa pods. In addition, a new focus on child labor has provided protection for youth and has made provisions for young children to attend school rather than work in the fields. Despite the long-term benefits, the immediate result has been a dramatic reduction in the workforce. Locating younger farmers to replace aging cocoa growers has become increasingly difficult.
Next door to Ghana is the Ivory Coast, the number-one cocoa producer in the world. By adopting the new measures introduced by sustainability experts, the Ivory Coast has produced record-breaking back-to-back crops. This bumper crop, however, is not even half of the potential crop if all of the farmers adopted good agricultural practices.
In 2014, 10 of the largest cocoa farmers agreed, in an unprecedented move, to share their private data related to crop yields and farming methods.
Many believe that one of the most effective methods to reduce crop loss due to severe weather and to improve plant development is to encourage farmers to use fertilizer. Agro-chemicals, in the form of fertilizer can improve plant stability, maximize plant yields, and reduce the amount of farmland needed. In order to encourage farmers to utilize new growing techniques, including the use of fertilizer, chocolate companies are developing training programs for farmers. Some of these programs can last up to three months and teach farmers new business practices, as well as how to capitalize on the benefits of fertilizer. Introducing fertilizer to farmers allows them to produce more and reduce crop losses.
The widespread acceptance of the use of fertilizer has been challenged by government officials in some countries that do not understand the positive impact of agro-chemical solutions. Additional training and protocols that make the acquisition of fertilizer affordable and efficient for farmers will increase the likelihood that they will use them.
The Future Is Bright
Farmers who produce cocoa plants are in high demand. Companies that depend on growing fields filled with cocoa plants are scrambling to secure what they need to meet demand. In order to assist with increased crop needs, scientists and analysts are teaching farmers new ways to farm in order to maximize crop production and yield a stronger and more efficient crop.
Cocoa production is big business. After a dramatic decline in cocoa commodities in 2011, prices have been climbing slowly. In 2015, there was a sharp increase in the price per ton of cocoa, which increased to nearly $3,500. Globally, over $1 billion is spent annually on projects to improve cocoa sustainability. However, with a two-year growth cycle for cocoa, farmers and companies must think both short- and long-term. By developing new farming techniques and adopting the use of fertilizer, cocoa production can continue to thrive around the world, both now and in the future.