Thursday, July 10, 2008

Chocolate scare

Poor farming practices in the 3rd world is an old, old story - which is why most agricultural production for export is in the developed world -- though China is learning fast. Good to see that someone is trying to help the African farmers but moving the crop to areas in the 1st world and to China is what is most likely to happen rather than a shortage developing. Tropical Australia already grows good coffee and the scope for expanding that to cocoa is large. Australia's high rainfall areas are greatly underused at the moment because of protectionism in other countries

"I think that in 20 years chocolate will be like caviar," says John Mason, executive director and founder of the Ghana-based Nature Conservation Research Council (NCRC). "It will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won't be able to afford it."

The prospect of a future without a ready supply of chocolate is not a pleasant thought for anyone with a sweet tooth, but it's an even more terrifying prospect for producer countries that depend on cocoa beans for a huge portion of their GDP. Yields are declining all across the cocoa plantations of West Africa, where two thirds of the world's supply is grown, as soils are degraded and the area able to support the crop retreats, according to Mason.

"The way we farm is just not sustainable," he says. "I'm afraid by the time we wake up to that fact it will be too late. I've worked in Ghana for 25 years and I can show you huge areas that can no longer support a crop." The problem is that cocoa is naturally a rainforest plant that grows in shady conditions surrounded by a high biodiversity, but recently hybrid varieties have been grown on cleared land as mono-cultures and in full sun. While this will give higher short term yields, the soil quickly becomes degraded and the lifespan of plants can be cut from 75 or 100 years, to 30 or less. When the trees die and the land is exhausted the farmers must move on and clear more rainforest to plant cocoa.

But the looming decline of West African cocoa is not only a problem for farmers and chocolate producers - Cadbury sources 100 percent of the beans they use for UK chocolate production from Ghana - environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the destruction of the rainforest for short-term gain. The forest is not only an important habitat in its own right, but its removal is also affecting the microclimate and changing rainfall patterns, compounding the negative effects of global warning, according to the NCRC.

But a new project seems to show that farmers, environmentalists and multinationals can find strength in their common cause. "They were worried about the future, and we were worried about biodiversity," says Dave Hillyard, Director of Program Operations for the international environmental charity Earthwatch. "We were coming together at the same point from different directions." In response to these concerns Earthwatch formed "Earthshare" in partnership with Cadbury and the NCRC.

Earthshare is a scientific research project that aims to explore ways of creating sustainable cocoa farming. Currently it works with 60 farms but negotiations are underway to scale up the initiative. "We want to understand the effect of different farming systems on the environment," says Hillyard. Intensively farmed landscapes need a lot of inputs -- such as water and chemical fertilizers - and their fertility tends to degrade rapidly. Whereas a mixed farming landscape, where other flora can shade the cocoa trees and provide habitats for the birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates that both eat pests on the cocoa and help pollinate the crop, not only increases biodiversity, it reduces the need for inputs and retains its fertility.

For Cadbury, Earthshare also helps address another problem: the declining number of people wanting to be cocoa farmers. "They're coming at sustainable supply from two angles," says Mark Harper, Program Manager for Earthwatch. "It's not just about increasing yields; it's also about decreasing the number of farmers leaving the business. "They are focused on making it a more attractive crop by improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers, whether that's by providing better sanitation, improved access to markets to get a better price for their crop, or helping establish new revenue streams, such as eco tourism."

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