It’s been one of the world’s most popular treats for centuries – but there’s a growing “threat” plaguing the global chocolate industry.
By the end of the year around 7.5 million tonnes of chocolate will have been consumed worldwide, with the average Australian consuming 5.1kg of the sweet stuff a year.
In other words, we can’t get enough of it – but behind the shiny packaging and the candy candies lies a very real set of challenges facing the entire industry.
“There is no solution”
One of the most obvious – and escalating – problems is the emergence of cacao swollen shoot virus disease (CSSVD), one of the most devastating crop diseases.
Although first discovered decades ago, the disease is spreading and posing a worsening risk every year.
It’s a major problem in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the two largest cocoa producers in the world, which account for more than 60 percent of global production.
While Côte d’Ivoire — which produces about 2.2 million tonnes of cocoa beans annually — has yet to see a significant impact of the disease on its cocoa yields, the picture is different in neighboring Ghana, which reported in July that its 2021/22 cocoa harvest was in decline was 35 percent year-on-year.
That’s the smallest harvest in 12 years – and was due to a combination of drought and CSSVD.
Nathan Bello, manager of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan, told news.com.au the disease is evolving – and making industry insiders nervous.
“There’s no solution… we can’t cure it, we can just stop the expansion, but we don’t really have a treatment. For several years it has been developing and increasing,” he said.
“Obviously it’s a threat and we honestly don’t know how much it will affect production in the country. Every year it gets worse.
“Right now we don’t have a huge problem meeting our volume target… But it’s something that’s there, we don’t know to what extent. To be honest…if someone asked me what the real threat is I wouldn’t say climate change, I wouldn’t say money for fertilizer, I would basically say it’s swollen shoots because we have no way of controlling them treat. That is my concern.”
The virus can easily spread between trees and farms, and once established, it kills trees at an alarming rate.
For now, the only way to combat it is to aggressively quarantine and destroy affected trees to stop the spread, with the government providing some compensation to affected farmers and supplying replacement crops such as rubber.
Stephane Detaille, Nestlé’s Global Sustainability Manager, told news.com.au that the disease is “definitely spreading”.
“We are discussing with local suppliers and there is definitely a spread of the virus, so there is a risk,” he said.
While the virus is a problem for the cocoa industry and chocolate production more broadly, it has not significantly impacted overall volumes so far.
But it can be catastrophic for the individual farmer – and is another concern for cocoa producers in developing countries who are already facing immense challenges.
Besides CSSVD, child labor is another major problem associated with cocoa farming, with the industry also vulnerable to climate change and deforestation, poverty, inflation, geopolitical issues and demographic shifts.
In January this year, confectionery giant Nestle announced a new program aimed at improving the lives of cocoa farmers, their families and the wider community.
The Income Acceleration Scheme, implemented by a range of advocacy groups and organizations, was created to address these child labor risks and achieve a living income for farmers, and although not specifically designed with cocoa-swollen budding virus disease in mind it is helping farmers reduce the many risks to their livelihoods.
Under the program, farmers receive financial incentives if they meet certain standards, including educating all children in the household between the ages of six and 16, implementing efficient agricultural practices such as pruning, which increases crop productivity, and conducting agroforestry activities to improve crop productivity Increasing climate resilience, such as planting shade trees, and generating diversified incomes, such as growing other crops, raising livestock, or running small businesses.
Mr Detaille told news.com.au that Nestlé is committed to supporting farmers and bringing about real change in rural communities.
“There’s definitely a need to work on it, it’s a matter of loyalty to the cocoa families we work with… and we’re really investing in that,” he said.
“We have an extremely dedicated CEO, so we will bear the costs.
“It’s very important to build sustainability into the way you do business because it needs to have value for the business and also ensure we’re cocoa-supplied in the future.”
He said the cocoa industry is vulnerable to a range of threats, including geopolitical issues, diseases like CSSVD and environmental issues like deforestation, as well as declining interest in agriculture.
“One of the things is how you educate the next generation of farmers – how you get that interest … the average age of farmers is almost 50 and we definitely need to bring young blood with us,” he said.
“In the future, it will be important for companies to form a coalition in order to be able to work together. Systemic problems are not solved by Nestle alone. We need to bring our competitors and other players together.”
It’s still early days, but for the farmers involved in the program the impact is already very tangible.
Cocoa farmer Yao M’Badama, from the village of Tafissou in central Ivory Coast, has dramatically increased his yields this year through pruning, and he’s also saving a small fortune that used to be swallowed up by the cost of fertilizers and pesticides as a result of better farming practices .
And for him, deciding how to spend that extra cash was easy.
“Scholarships for my children,” he said with obvious pride.
This reporter traveled to Côte d’Ivoire at Nestle’s expense
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