ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The world’s top producer of cocoa, the key ingredient of chocolate, is on a mission to feed the appetite of chocolate lovers in Singapore and the world without exploiting forests and farmers.
Switzerland-based Barry Callebaut, which is also the biggest chocolate maker in the world, is estimated to produce about a fifth of the company’s cocoa beans. In recent times, it has been focusing on infusing sustainability into its cocoa supply chain in the Ivory Coast, in the West African coast.
The Straits Times in April went to the plantations in the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan that provide the cocoa that gets transformed into the finest Barry Callebaut chocolate products.
The Swiss cocoa giant operates out of over 45 countries, employs a global workforce of more than 13,000 people and generates sales of about 8.1 billion Swiss francs (S$12.1 billion) annually.
The appetite for chocolate in Asia has grown over the past decade, with cocoa businesses grinding 904,094 tonnes of cocoa in 2022, up from 606,622 tonnes in 2012, according to the Cocoa Association of Asia.
But non-profit groups have raised concerns over the cost to poor communities in the global South, including Ghana and the Ivory Coast, that farm the popular ingredient and their forests, and which are cleared for cocoa monoculture.
The Ivory Coast has lost about 85 per cent of its forests since 1960, mainly due to cocoa farming, leaving it with only 2.97 million ha of forest, or 8.9 per cent of the country’s land.
In May, Barry Callebaut refined and postponed some of its targets to make chocolate sustainable by 2025, because it felt more time was needed – until 2030 – for systemic change to take place.
Mr Nicolas Mounard, Barry Callebaut vice-president for sustainability and farming, told media on April 27 that the company needs five more years to ensure that all its ingredients come from sustainable sources – those that do not contribute to deforestation and whose products can be traced to the farm where they are produced.
Sustainable ingredients are expected to make up 75 per cent of production by 2025, said Mr Mounard. He added that the company is working with the European Union to meet its sweeping anti-deforestation law approved in April.
Under the law, listed goods, including cocoa, cannot be sold if they come from deforested land or have contributed to forest degradation after Dec 31, 2020.
This aligns with Barry Callebaut’s efforts to map its entire supply chain and ensure that cocoa can be traced to plantations that do not encroach on virgin forests.
The Straits Times was given a demonstration of how a farm’s boundaries in Tiassale, about 140km from Abidjan, can be monitored using satellite data on an app. The app will alert the firm whenever a change in the farm’s boundaries results in a decrease in forest cover.
Other efforts have focused on improving farmers’ livelihoods through greater yields, with Barry Callebaut expecting to hit its original target of raising by 2025 the incomes of more than 500,000 cocoa farmers in poverty.
Farmer Noel N’Dri Yao, 53, who owns a plantation in Tiassale, said support from Barry Callebaut has helped him produce 420kg of beans when the bulk of cocoa is harvested. Three years ago, before he joined a cooperative Barry Callebaut works with, he produced about 300kg of beans.
He earns a living through cocoa farming, like nearly a quarter of the Ivory Coast population, according to data compiled by state regulator Coffee-Cocoa Council.
As a member of the cooperative, Mr N’Dri Yao gets insecticide, subsidised fertiliser and help from labour groups employed by the chocolate maker to prune a fraction of his trees.
Speaking in French, Mr N’Dri Yao, who has nine children, said: “Pest control has become easier after inspection by labour teams helped to uncover pests.”
Under Barry Callebaut’s agroforestry initiative, he is paid €50 (S$73) if 70 non-cocoa saplings survive for six months.
Agroforestry refers to the cultivation of trees and shrubs alongside agricultural crops to enhance food supply, income and ecological benefits, including siphoning carbon from the atmosphere.
In the Ivory Coast, Barry Callebaut gives out six species of non-cocoa saplings, including avocado and teak, and trains farmers to care for these seedlings in a way that optimises the growth of shade-loving cocoa trees.
Said Mr Mounard: “We’re moving away from just distributing saplings because we noticed that farmers are reluctant to touch areas that are already dense with trees, and they tend to not be fans of shade because of fungus.
“In exchange for forest services provided by the saplings that survive, we give them cash payments.”
Advancing agroforestry simply by supplying saplings is not a silver bullet for re-foresting cocoa plantations, said several non-profit groups.
Low rates of adoption and tree survival, and a lack of common definitions across companies hinder the deployment and understanding of diverse agroforestry systems at scale, according to a report by the Cocoa Barometer published in December 2022.
The biennial report is put out by a global network of non-government organisations and trade unions championing sustainability in cocoa, and tackles issues like poverty, deforestation and child labour.
Mr Bakary Traore, the executive director of Ivory Coast biodiversity non-profit group IDEF, said producers often track sapling growth for an insufficient period of time. Trees, he added, need at least three years before they can be left on their own.
Farmers also face the threat of illegal logging, which discourages them from growing more trees, he added.
For Mr Traore, chocolate production can only be sustainable if manufacturers and the Ivory Coast government focus on boosting cocoa quality instead of the quantity by pushing for agroforestry practices and cutting the use of pesticide and fertiliser, which harm the environment and people.
These smaller yields with better quality will likely lead to higher prices, he added. He said: “Attitudes of consumers will need to change. They need to accept that you can’t have chocolate at low prices, that it’s a luxury product.”
However, Assistant Professor Chua Yeow Hwee, who teaches economics at Nanyang Technological University, said price remains the main concern for consumers in Singapore when it comes to grocery shopping, “particularly in an environment with high inflation”.
There is also a lack of consumer attention to sustainably produced chocolate in Singapore, he added.
He said: “We need to provide more accessible information that captures their attention. One way is to have an individual carbon scorecard, whereby we link individuals to their carbon footprint.
“This will make choices of sustainable products more noticeable.”