Considerations for the Sustainable Production of Cocoa

Joe Whinney
Organic Commodity Project, Inc. (OCP)
160 Second Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts USA


The Organic Commodity Project, Inc. (OCP) was founded on the principal that agriculture can play a key role in environmental conservation. OCP has recognized that good land stewards can stem the loss of species through sustainable agricultural practices. This is only possible if the land stewards are able to maintain a stable economy that allows them to invest in the future through appropriate and sustainable land management techniques. "Sustainable" is difficult to define in the context in which we use it to describe agricultural techniques. However, we will attempt to define "sustainable" as it relates to cocoa and the environment below.

Why chocolate? OCP chose to focus on cocoa, not only because we love taste testing, but because cocoa can be used as an "anchor" cash crop in a diversified agroforestry system. We define cocoa as an anchor crop due to the fact that a substantial and mature market exists for cocoa and cocoa is, by design, an under-story tree in the humid tropical forest. OCP has seen the potential for the market to be a critical component to building stable economies for growers who properly steward sensitive humid tropical ecosystems.

As demand for sustainably produced agricultural products increase producers must be supported with technology, financing and extension / organizational consultation. We must develop relationships with our suppliers that reflect the level of interdependence that exists between our suppliers and our own interests. Partnerships with our suppliers and greater interaction with those who are working on solutions to the production issues our industry is beginning to recognize will be part of the solutions going forward.

As an industry I also ask that while we discuss cocoa and its environmental role today and in the future that we do not loose sight of our use of sweeteners and the environmental impact that sweetener production has.


A. Cocoa's role and unique value in sustainable tropical agroforestry

Theobroma cacao is, by biological design, an under-story tree in humid tropical forests. Its' aboriginal home consisted of multi-layered forest systems with a diverse arboreal canopy providing shelter from intense sun and rain as well as providing nutritious leaf litter. A multi-layered forest system continues to be the optimum environment for its cultivation as well as, we would like to suggest, for its' sustainable and commercial cultivation. Cocoa grown in this type of system holds enormous potential for environmental and cultural conservation in regions under intense pressure from logging, development and conventional , monocrop agriculture.

These cultivation conditions for what we can call "sustainable cocoa" include a multi-tiered, vertically diverse forest canopy with 40 - 70% shade density. This may not be primary growth rain forest but these conditions encourage and support organism diversity to move toward the restoration of a mature forest system. The benefits of this type of system include the attraction of beneficial insects for pest control, breeding opportunities for natural pollinators, and varieties of habitat for diverse populations of flora and fauna. The inputs required for organic cacao cultivation are minimal compared to conventional methods, reducing the expense and risk of using chemicals for the growers.

Any system developed for sustainable cocoa must be one which allows for high biodiversity while providing for farmers' subsistence and cash needs. Our experience has shown us that cocoa can be produced commercially in a biologically rich and diverse "forest" environment in the humid tropics. This environment can also yield subsistence products for the farmer such as fruits, medicine, spices, timber / building material, animals (protein), root crops and other materials. Some of these other crops may be additional cash crops as well. By having a sustained cash income through cocoa production the farmer is also able to meet other needs while providing the most suitable habitat for cocoa production. Cocoa grown in this manner may also develop or maintain a strong immune system which will benefit the harvest and future plant generations.

Sustainable agriculture refers to agricultural systems which meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainable agriculture must integrate the goals of environmental health and economic stability. A perspective which takes into account the entire system in which the agricultural operation exists is a key part of any agriculture that can be considered "sustainable".

Sustainable agriculture must equal economic integrity for societies of rural producers. Environmental health is also a critical long term economic issue. When a plant is in shock or grown in extreme conditions, such as full sun for cocoa, the plant tends to produce seed (product) at an accelerated rate resulting in high yields. High yield is beneficial for the conventional producer in the short term however, in most circumstances high yield is not sustainable. Invariably the producer will spend more labor and inputs to maintain this yield. When yield is exhausted the producer will remove the crop and replace it with another planting of the same or different crop. These exercises, when compared to low impact poly-culture techniques over time (20 years or more), most likely results in higher cost per unit. Unit output is not necessarily higher in either case.

Poly-culture agriculture develops security through diversity. Sustainable cacao is less likely to succumb to dramatic yield drop-offs due to dramatic pest population increases or disease outbreaks. This is due to many benefits provided by diverse systems such as beneficial organisms, strong crop immune systems, and increased presence of the producer in the field. A diverse agroforestry system will result in a higher degree of personal attention by producers to plant, cultivate and harvest their crops.

OCP sells its products as certified organic. This is due to the fact that the organic market is the only market that exists today that recognizes agricultural and handling practices that are respectful of the environment. From a marketing perspective we are able to use this term organic as point of differentiation. However, our vision of the future includes that all chocolate products use raw materials which are grown and handled in such a way as to protect and stimulate environmental health.

Certified organic agriculture is defined as production in accordance with agreed-upon standards for organic agricultural practices. These standards involve an annual inspection process which certifies that the organic crop has been produced and handled with no synthetic chemicals or prohibited substances such as synthetic pyrethroids and paraquat. It must also have been grown on land free from application of these substances for a minimum of 3 years. Each organic agricultural operation must use an "organic plan" agreed upon by both the grower and the certifier. It must detail all aspects of the agricultural production of the certified crop. This includes such things as soil management, crop rotation, biological inputs, pest controls, post harvest techniques, storage, handling and document tracking.

Organic agriculture attempts to take into account the entire system in which the crops are grown. This prevents many of the problems that can result from input-heavy conventional agriculture. However, organic agriculture is not always sustainable agriculture. OCP believes that any agriculture, even if it meets organic standards, that does not respect and support the living systems which are indigenous to its region is not sustainable. Organic standards do reach for sustainability but they do not require growers to achieve it.

B. Some Lessons Learned.


A. OCP Internal Sustainability Standards

In the example of our business, we work with producers who grow cocoa in situations which range from diverse poly-cultures to single species systems. It has taken several years to develop a market which will support this work. Consumers in US, European and Pacific Rim markets are beginning to recognize the value of diversified growing conditions through various certification labels being applied to consumer goods such as certified organic. Most cocoa grown in the world is not produced in diverse poly-cultures but rather in situations of full or partial sun which need restoration to approach a bio-diverse system. Specific knowledge of the desirable, or "reference", ecosystems is necessary to restore a growing region from environmental degradation back to ecological health. This process requires a long term commitment and can take generations to achieve depending on the degree of devastation, even without political or financial barriers.

As the market grows to support these cultivation methods, our demand for sustainable product grows as does our efforts in the field to develop and support additional sustainable producer organizations. This raises the question of evaluation of new supplier groups. This is a complex process involving multilevel considerations. OCP's long term procurement strategy is a combination of:




OCP has developed a matrix of considerations to evaluate new supplier groups referred to as our internal Sustainability Standards. The standards combine the evaluation of groups from both perspectives of environmental and socio-economic stability.

These standards are made up of five major steps:

Initial Ecological, Economic and Cultural Assessment of Site

Identification of Reference Ecosystems

Application of General Biodiversity Matrix

Analyses of Sustainability Potential of Commercial Cocoa

Management Recommendations using Criteria Matrix

After the general characteristics of the site are known and reference ecosystems identified, the site characteristics are over laid into a General Biodiversity Matrix in which the site is evaluated along the following criteria:

Intraspecific Genetic Diversity

Interspecific Species Diversity within Habitats

Habitat Diversity within Site Landscape

From this assessment, an overall evaluation is done to assess the Sustainability Potential for a commercially viable cocoa program in this site. Examples of questions to consider in this step are:

Is cocoa the target crop suited for this particular site, both ecologically and economically?

Is there sufficient community interest and / organization to fulfill the requirements of a sustainable cultivation program?

Are there external factors that would prevent the establishment of such a program?

From this point a decision must be made to continue in a more detailed assessment of the site. If the decision is affirmative, an analysis is conducted using a Criteria Matrix. This matrix involves a very detailed look into the site considering several interdependent factors at once. For example, the optimum canopy structure and depth would be evaluated with optimum air and sun circulation for maximized commercial cocoa production, disease control and ecosystem integrity. A few of the criteria in the matrix are:

Please note that this assessment and planning tool is still being formulated and OCP believes strongly that implementation and not assessment will be the largest challenge.


It is safe to say that OCP has just begun to address the multitude of challenges related to sustainable cocoa production. As our work pertains to sustainable cocoa production we have been able to, in the past four years:

Identify and stimulate the market demand for cocoa products using organic cocoa;

Identify that strong extension support is critical to begin to meet sustainable goals;

It is OCP's believe that sustainable cocoa production will not only lead to environmental integrity and social and economic stability but will also improve product quality and supply security.


OCP's recommendations assume that there is unilateral support for sustainable growing of cocoa.


An assessment of the current environmental impact of cocoa production in key cocoa growing regions is an important step to identify long term restorative strategies. This work will also be vital in determining what positive production schemes already exist. Furthermore, understanding the cocoa economies in the same regions will help identify what socioeconomic needs must be meet.

Continued and rigorous research is required to support and identify sustainable cultivation techniques specific to each cocoa growing region will be a necessary and important ingredient in developing cross trade support for sustainable production. A good example of cross trade cooperation is the development of alternatives to methly bromide for post harvest pest control. This specific research into safe pest control methods will become a key link in the chain of providing environmentally safe products.

Implementation of Findings

One of the largest challenges that we have experienced is that of implementing good sound research. Coalitions of producers, governments, buyers, scientists and ultimately consumers will be required to see that the sound findings that will come out of continued research can be implemented without inflating costs unnecessarily.

Implementation techniques will vary region to region based on cultural, economic, political and financial pressures. The success of implementing appropriate research findings will ultimately fall on community level organizations because it is the farmers who are the land stewards.

Market Development

Proactive market response to environmental degradation in cocoa growing regions will have a strong impact on stemming the tide of species and habitat loss. The response can come in the form of:

Developing and marketing products that utilize cocoa grown in sustainable or restorative cultivation programs;

Consumer education of the issues related to tropical environmental degradation as well as the farmers economic challenges;

Industry support and participation in research related to sustainable cocoa cultivation;

Industry support of research implementation through extension programs and local farmer organizations.

Consumer Products and Environmental Cache

We must, as an industry, be careful about the presentations and representations we make to the consumers of our products. Too many pro-environment / social justice labels can confuse consumers and weaken the overall message. Any product using "good housekeeping" environmental seals run the risk of weakening the industry's message of corporate responsibility, product safety and environmental and social justice. If a consumer feels that an OK environmental seal is a marketing ploy with no respected certifying body behind it the consumer is likely to not support the product. There remains value at retail in cause related marketed products but any seals or certification that speaks to the product's environmental benefits must be backed up by a realistic and legitimate implementation program.


Legislation is a critical component to insuring region implementation of sustainable initiatives. In some cocoa producing countries there may be barriers to supporting farmer's sustainable cocoa production. It is important that each cocoa growing region establish legislative initiatives that insure farmers right's to their crops and to manage the land that they grow on in a sustainable way. Some related issues are:

Land Tenure. Due to the fact that restorative practices may require many years to develop real results it is critical that growers are provided with incentives to invest time and effort into their land through ownership security.

Logging concessions must be provided in such a way as to not disturb critical habitat in cocoa growing regions and growers must have the right to sustainably harvest timber on their land and receive the monetary reward part of their economic plan for their poly culture practices.

The growers must be assured that any premiums paid for sustainable cocoa to marketing bodies are also passed on to them. Economic stability is at the core of this issue.