In Europe, we are responsible for 16% of global deforestation. How? Every day we buy and consume food whose production may have contributed to forest loss and degradation in other parts of the world. This deforestation outside EU’s borders is therefore indirectly linked (embodied in) to the production of some raw materials, especially beef, soy, palm oil, coffee and cocoa. With the legislative proposal for the “Zero Deforestation” Regulation, Europe introduces new traceability and supply chain transparency requirements for companies that import and process beef, wood, palm oil, soy, coffee and cocoa – and some of their finished products, such as leather, chocolate and furniture.

In this new article series, we will explore the five agro commodities at the core of the European debate, which are questioning the role of wood and its contribution to tropical deforestation.

The palm oil industry in Asia and the soybean and cattle ranching in Latin America are the agribusiness sectors with the highest impact on deforestation and forest degradation. However, data on cocoa production reveal equally relevant impacts. According to a recent study by the American NGO Mighty Earth, in the last few decades, Ghana and Ivory Coast have lost about one-third of their respective forested areas to make space for cocoa crops. Behind the chocolate confectionery industry, there is a supply chain undermined by deforestation, wage inequality, and child labour.

A bit of history

The cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao, from Latin: Theo=God and Broma = Food, “food of the gods.” ) is a species with very ancient origins: archaeological studies in Costa Rica proved cocoa was already consumed as a beverage by Mayas in the 400 BC. Once cultivated in the equatorial regions of the Americas, cocoa has then spread – starting from the 8th century –  to the islands of the Indian Ocean and to the coasts of western Africa, notably in the English colony of the Gold Coast – today’s Ghana – and the Ivory Coast, which later became among the biggest cocoa producers of the world. The arrival and diffusion of cocoa in Europe are probably due to Cristoforo Colombo. Initially, cocoa beans were used as currency to buy food and other goods, then as a beverage served during official ceremonies. Finally – in the 19th century – cocoa became more and more popular as a processed product due to refined production techniques. These techniques have gradually transformed cocoa beans into what we mean today as chocolate.

Cocoa Cultivation

The cocoa tree is a delicate crop that does not like direct sunlight and sudden temperature changes: it grows best in hot and humid regions, between 25-35°C. The typical habitat of this plant is the tropical forest ecosystems. The cocoa plant lives preferably in the shade of tall “mother trees”, which protect it from direct sunlight and also provide farmers with alternative income (e.g., wood or fruit). It takes about 5 years for the plant to start bearing fruits, and the production period can continue for 30 years. In the last decades, traditional cocoa varieties – such as Amazons and Amelonado – have been gradually replaced by new hybrid varieties which, compared to the former, have a higher resistance to the sun and yield more in the short term (i.e., they produce more pods at an early age and more pods per tree). However, these cocoa varieties underperform the older ones in the long run, as they require optimal climatic conditions and more inputs, including heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers – with possible consequences on soil and water pollution – and constant pruning and labour. These full sun-loving varieties are posing serious challenges to traditional cocoa agroforestry systems, replacing them with “slash and burn” farming practices, with the consequent loss of forest cover, biodiversity and general soil impoverishment. In 2020, the rate of deforestation caused by cocoa marked a peak in forest reserves and national parks. According to an investigation published by The Guardian on the Ivory Coast, cocoa farmers are occupying supposedly protected national parks, while enforcement officials are taking bribes for turning a blind eye to these infractions.

Cocoa supply chain

The cocoa tree is a cauliflorous tree, meaning that the plant and fruit grow directly on the trunk and large branches. The flowers grow all year round from the third year but only 1 flower out of 500 will give a pod. The fruits of the cocoa tree, also known as cocoa beans, grow inside pods (of an oval-oblong shape and of variable length and colour). First, the cocoa beans are harvested by the small farmers, using tools such as the machete or the “cocoa iron”. Then, they are cleaned from the white mucilage that wraps them, and processed for fermentation (placed in piles and protected by banana leaves or in stackable wood boxes) and drying (in ovens or on trays left in the sun for about one week). The seeds are then exported in different forms: whole or broken bean, raw or roasted.

About 5 million small and medium-sized farmers in developing countries are at the heart of this delicate process while, on the other side, billions of end consumers. At the centre of what has been defined as “an extreme case of hourglass structure”, there are a few international players (huge trading companies and first and second processors) controlling the global distribution and processing, followed by thousands of other small and medium chocolate traders and artisans. In supply chains with such a structure, with millions of small farmers, tracing the origin of cocoa beans and guaranteeing that it is not linked to deforestation and forest degradation is very complicated. Complaints about deforestation linked to the chocolate industry come from two investigations conducted by The Guardian and the environmental organisation Mighty Earth in the Ivory Coast, according to which local traders (middlemen), who sell to multinational cocoa companies, may buy cocoa beans illegally grown within protected areas or national parks in the country from small farmers. This illegal product is then mixed with legally produced cocoa beans at various stages of the supply chain. As a result, many products processed into bars or chocolates may include illegal cocoa. The cocoa market structure is highly unbalanced also in the division of revenues. According to the World Economic Forum, at a global level, more than 80% of the cocoa revenues are destined for large producers and traders, while small farmers, who represent the vast majority of the players in the supply chain, receive no more than 6.6% of total earnings. Achieving a 100% legal and sustainable sourcing, therefore, requires rigorous due diligence to trace back to all farms where beans are physically sourced through ‘segregated’ standards – that is, sourcing from known groups of farmers – advanced mapping and monitoring systems, partnerships with certification bodies and other independently managed standards, as well as strategies to improve farmers’ livelihoods, protect children’s rights and safeguard the environment. In this regard, Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) emerged in the sector over 20 years ago, providing consumers with more sustainable cocoa purchasing options (e.g. Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and Cocoa Horizons).

Production and consumption of cocoa in the world and in Italy

Today, almost 70% of the world’s cocoa grows in Africa: a large part of this comes from Ivory Coast – the world’s leading producer – followed by Ghana, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Mexico. Europe is the world’s leading region for processing and export, with the highest industrial demand for raw cocoa beans. According to U.S. market intelligence agency Fior Markets, in 2020 Europe held the largest share (45%) of the global market. According to ComTrade, Italy – with a value of about 300 million euros – was among the top 10 global importers and the top 5 European importers of cocoa beans in 2020. In 2020, over 40% of Italian cocoa bean imports came from the Ivory Coast and 18% from Ghana. The latter figures, together with data on embodied deforestation elaborated by Etifor based on the method by Pendrill et al., give us a better understanding of our (indirect) responsibilities: in the period between 2007 and 2017, Italian cocoa imports caused an average annual forest loss of about 1221.626021 hectares, ranking 6th among the European economies with the highest impact on embodied cocoa deforestation.

What should a sustainable cocoa farm look like?

Cocoa production that is environmentally friendly, increases the resilience of farming systems against climate change and disease, and improves farmers’ incomes should be based on traditional agroforestry systems, i.e. planting shade trees in cocoa plantations. By increasing the density of trees per hectare of land planted with cocoa, using different varieties of timber, legume and fruit trees, forests are restored. At the same time, the economy of farming families is diversified, creating additional forms of income through the sale of agroforestry products from planted trees (e.g. avocados). In addition, thanks to greater species diversity, the resilience of plants against climate change and disease is increased and soil quality is improved. The resulting reduced need for fertilisers and the income derived from the sequestration of CO from the trees increase the monthly incomes of farmers, who are no longer forced to clear additional areas of forest.

What are the responsibilities of companies in the deforestation of tropical countries?
And the implications of the new European measures for your company?


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Photo Credits

  • Cocoa farmer in Bobiri forest reserve, Ghana, July 2019. Author: Elena Massarenti
    Sun-drying of cocoa beans in Bobiri forest reserve, Ghana, July 2019. Author: Elena Massarenti