Sustainability, cocoa sustainability, sustainable cocoa, why is sustainability important, sustainability defined, sustainability movement, cocoa plant, cocoa bean, cacao, raw cacao, deforestation, what is deforestation

Author Hervé D. Bisseleua

Director of Agricultural Productivity & Chief Party ACI II
World Cocoa Foundation
Yao Ahou stands proudly next to an Acacia Mangium, which provides shade, barrier for some insects, fodder for farm animals, soil restoration, and other benefits to cocoa farms

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) this month launched the decade of ecosystem restoration. “Just as we caused the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution crisis, we can reverse the damage that we’ve done; we can be the first generation to reimagine, to recreate and to restore nature to kickstart action for a better world,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. Experts agree that protecting natural areas will not be enough to meet global climate change goals, we also need to restore forests and other ecosystems.

What does this mean for cocoa? First, it means fully implementing the Cocoa & Forests Initiative. Cocoa and chocolate companies have made a head start by distributing more than 10 million forest trees in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana since 2018. In 2020, they also trained more than 420,000 farmers on climate smart cocoa and supported 130,220 famers in practicing agroforestry. They plan on accelerating restoration efforts in 2021 and beyond thanks notably to landscape partnerships with governments, NGOs and cocoa communities.

But what about looking at the way cocoa is grown? Beyond agroforestry, could regenerative agriculture, or harnessing nature to farm efficiently and responsibly, be a model? We catch up with Hervé Bisseleua, WCF’s Director of Agricultural Productivity, in charge of our prosperous farmers activities, to understand this farming method, and how it could work in cocoa.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture considers the entire ecosystem based on four pillars: plant health, soil health, farm biodiversity, and farmer livelihoods. It’s a set of farming practices that reduces reliance on synthetic inputs  such as pesticides, enhances farm biodiversity, stocks carbon in the soil, and nurtures soil natural processes. It improves fertility and water retention and supports the resiliency of farms, boosting sustainability in the process.

Biodiversity is key in regenerative agriculture: small animals called microorganisms naturally build up the soil, improve nutrition and protect plants. Bees and midges favor pollination, earth worms facilitate soil aeration and water retention, termites break down the soil to release minerals, bacteria and fungus fix nitrogen and build the defense mechanism of plants, and ladybugs prey on harmful insects that damage cocoa leaves. This beneficial and discreet fauna is called the invisible wildlife.

Farmers Regenerative agriculture also brings quality and standards that might allow cocoa to reach a higher price with organic or biodiversity friendly certification.

Why is regenerative agriculture relevant in cocoa today?

As we work to end cocoa-related deforestation, we need to get better at restoring old or diseased cocoa farms. We are now growing cocoa after cocoa, not cocoa after forest. Lessons learned from regenerative agriculture can help us grow more cocoa on less land with improved farmer livelihoods and no deforestation.

Regenerative agriculture harnesses natural processes. For instance, cocoa trees can be naturally protected against pests when forests are close to cocoa farms. In forest corridors, beneficial wild animal species can rest, reproduce, and feed. They thrive thanks to the forest and can also do valuable ‘work’, such as natural pest control or soil aeration, on cocoa farms.

We know that the devastating Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV) disease started infecting cocoa trees because of forest clearing: by taking down forest trees around cocoa, we have deprived the CSSV virus of both its natural host and natural enemies. The restoration of forest corridors around cocoa farms brings back ecosystems that could mitigate the spread of CSSV. Mealybugs who carry the CSSV virus have natural predators. If we bring back forest corridors, these predators could come back and combat the CSSV virus.

What are the challenges for regenerative agriculture to become more widespread?

There is little awareness around using regenerative agriculture to farm differently and responsibly and respecting the invisible wildlife. Farmers are not trained in regenerative agriculture, and it is difficult to give them access to this market niche for their cocoa.

Also, it is hard to measure. Data on organic matter in the soil or number of microorganism species is hard to collect, so there’s no easy way of designating a farm as using regenerative agriculture.

But with agroforestry a clear priority of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, the cocoa sector has made a strong first step in the right direction.

In 2019, the French government started the OP2B (One Planet business for Biodiversity) movement with nine companies. WCF members such as Nestlé, Barry Callebaut, and Unilever are part of this movement and promoting regenerative agriculture practices through their suppliers.

Let’s hope the #GenerationRestoration movement will accelerate this transformation, for cocoa farmers and a healthy planet.