THE BLOG
02/16/2012 11:22 am ET | Updated Apr 17, 2012

The Next Generation of Cocoa Farmers

Again this year, millions of people are enjoying National Chocolate Lovers' Month, having just celebrated the high holiday for chocolate aficionados -- Valentine's Day. But what about the month of February in the year 2020? While it may be hard to believe now, when shelves are overflowing nearly everywhere with affordable chocolates, in a few short years the world might not have enough cocoa, the raw material used to make chocolate. In fact, the chocolate we enjoy now as an everyday, affordable luxury could become rare and, as a consequence, far more expensive. That is, unless we all make a serious commitment to the small farmers in West Africa who grow most of the world's cocoa.

Cocoa is a "smallholder crop," meaning that it's grown mainly on small, individually-owned farms, with 70 percent coming from just two African countries: Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. As a smallholder crop, cocoa hasn't benefited from the research and technological support that have boosted productivity and profitability for staple crops like corn and wheat. And yet nearly six million individuals support their families around the world through cocoa production, and many cocoa farmers struggle to make a living against aging trees, declining soil fertility and untreated pests and diseases that destroy their harvests. For the cocoa industry to be truly sustainable, these farmers must be put first in everybody's thinking so that they are able to professionalize their small farms, increase their incomes, diversify their crops and support their families. We strongly believe that responsibly increasing growers' productivity will begin to address a number of social ills that farmers and their families in those regions face, including illiteracy, malnutrition and child labor.

This critical need is most acute when seen from the perspective of these farmers' children, many of whom help their parents on the farm and may not have access to affordable education or other basic services. As the end user of cocoa, Mars is determined to improve the well-being of those who make our business possible, and we refuse to accept the status quo as an intractable problem. If the industry is able to work together to prioritize farmer benefit in origins over competitive advantage in consuming markets, we believe that we can make it possible for the next generation of farmers to be able to enjoy viable livelihoods around cocoa production.

We believe that the path to a sustainable cocoa industry has three critical elements: break-through agricultural research focused on cocoa to discover new ways to make farms perform better; innovative technology transfer methods to allow farmers on the ground to benefit from these discoveries; and a comprehensive certification effort to reach as many farmers as possible as well as to set a high bar for what the industry considers "sustainable."

As a so-called "orphan crop," cocoa has not had the kind of scientific research that has benefited many other crops. Cocoa needs more investment in order to improve plant breeding and to better control pests and diseases. Mars has already supported several cocoa research programs in conjunction with national research institutes and other partners, but there is much work left to be done. In 2010, for example, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and IBM, Mars mapped the cocoa genome to give researchers better insight into the cocoa plant. We made the sequence publicly available and protected the genome from patenting or ownership. This should now accelerate plant breeding efforts that will mean that new cocoa plants that produce more cocoa and better resist pests and disease will become available to farmers.

Transferring this knowledge to farmers in a way that provides practical benefits is a more complex challenge, but we have already seen some early successes with a model based around "Cocoa Development Centers." A Cocoa Development Center is a type of demonstration farm designed to encourage farm rehabilitation and build local capacity for training and support. The goal of these in-country centers is to reduce farmers' dependency on external support and strengthen the entire agricultural sector. Mars is focusing on building many CDCs in Cote d'Ivoire and Indonesia. However, to reach a significant portion of the world's cocoa farmers, much greater investment and much broader coordination amongst industry partners will be needed.

Certification is an important tool that allows the industry to apply common production standards and traceability to improve both quality and accountability throughout the supply chain. While not a complete guarantee, certification will provide real benefits to more farmers than many other interventions, and it will provide a way to promote commonly accepted standards throughout the industry. Today, less than 10 percent of the world's cocoa is certified. Mars has committed to have 100 percent of its cocoa purchases certified sustainable by 2020 and we believe that for certification to be a major catalyst of change most of the cocoa produced in the world must be certified. The path ahead won't be short, nor will it be easy, but already we are seeing some signs of progress and some reasons to be hopeful. However, if the entire industry is not able to effectively prioritize and work together to affect real change for farmers, February 2020 could see Tiffany's having a few cocoa beans for sale behind glass and many farmers still struggling to support their families.

For more information on our efforts, please go to www.mars.com/cocoasustainability and cocoasustainability.com.

Barry Parkin is the Vice President in charge of Mars Chocolate's global supply chain and sustainability programs.