• Sourcing Notes: Agroforestry, Biodiversity, and Slowing Climate Change One Chocolate Bar at a Time

December 13, 2017

Image: Agroforestry cacao farm in the Dominican Republic, courtesy of Uncommon Cacao

"If you look at a map of global agrobiodiversity hotspots you soon realize that they are identical with indigenous people’s habitats…"

If you love chocolate, you’ve probably been seeing articles in the news about the current worldwide chocolate shortage. International demand for cacao is steadily rising, and an increased recognition of the health benefits of dark chocolate is leading chocolate makers to increase the amount of cacao they put into products.
 

As the demand for chocolate steadily rises across the globe, the monoculture cacao plantations that are the source of most of the world's chocolate are pushed harder and harder beyond their natural means.  Pesticide and herbicide use is common, as local soils are depleted and can no longer be maintained without agrochemical inputs. Pests, mold, and mildew are are always a challenge for farmers as well.

Cacao Plantation in the 1920s

A Cacao Plantation - Circa 1920s

Meanwhile, chocolate farmers, who are frequently some of of the most economically challenged people on the planet due to the exploitative economics of the post-colonial international chocolate market, are choosing to transition to growing more profitable crops. To put it simply, farmers need to be paid more for the hard work they do to maintain cacao trees and the jungle habitats they thrive within.

FORTUNATELY, THERE IS ANOTHER WAY TO GROW CACAO

Central and South American communities have been growing cacao for millennia using an ancient system called as agroforestry, which honors local biodiversity, respects the integrity of the ecosystem beyond the cacao trees, and provides built in protection from disease, pests, and drought. Since this model is closer the natural jungle environment, many other plants & animals live in the ecosystem, beneficial soil microbes & fungi are diverse and thriving, and soils are replenished slowly over time by ample and diverse naturally decaying matter.

On an agroforestry farm, a variety of plants and trees are grown together -  hardwood trees provide shade, which encourages a healthy soil microbe community. Local fruit trees and nitrogen fixing plants are grown beneath the shade trees, and food crops and medicinal plants can be grown beneath the tree canopy.

Agroforestry systems sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, slowing the effects of climate change. This style of agriculture is much more akin to tending the wild jungle, vs. the dominant model of cacao farms worldwide where the jungle is typically burned or cleared in its entirety to make way for a monoculture orchard.

Agroforesty demonstrates many benefits, including:
  • Increases productivity and reduces labor.
  • Vastly improves regional biodiversity.
  • Reduces need for irrigation.
  • Reduces deforestation of wild forests.
  • Reduces soil runoff.
  • Reduces or eliminates need for insecticides and herbicides.
  • Improves variety in diet and nutrition for farmers and local community.
  • Reduces and stabilizes erosion.
  • Improves water and soil quality.

Sadly, less than 10% of the world’s cacao is produced in agroforestry ecosystems.

Farmer tending cacao trees on an agroforestry farm in the Dominican Republic

A farmer from the Oko Caribe collective tending cacao plants on a Dominican Republic agroforestry farm - Image from Uncommon Cacao

At Endorfin, we are committed to sourcing agroforestry cacao exclusively, and compensating farmers far above commodity market rates. Here are three reasons why:

1. We are committed to supporting smallholder farmers
 

Farmers who grow agroforestry cacao tend to have far smaller farms (usually no more than 2 hectares) than plantation farmers growing monoculture cacao. These smallholder farmers face the greatest economic challenges, so we can have the biggest possible positive impact on farmer prosperity by buying their cacao for a good price.

As plants & other organisms that live in a biodiverse agroforestry system naturally complete their life cycle, they decompose and naturally fertilize the soil over time, creating a layer of mulch that prevents the soil from drying out, reducing the need for irrigation, and eliminating the need for agrochemical fertilizers.

Increased biodiversity also means pest populations have to contend with natural enemies who control their population, reducing dependence on expensive and labor intensive pest, weed, and disease control.

These factors mean that agroforestry cacao farming is far more profitable and sustainable for farmers with limited land who typically lack the resources to purchase pesticides and fertilizers

Farmer harvesting cacao at OKO Caribe, Dominican Republic

A farmer from the Oko Caribe collective harvesting cacao pods in the Dominican Republic - Image from Uncommon Cacao

Agroforestry also increases wealth for farmers, who can make more money by selling the various food crops grown in the forest, like bananas and plantains, and can rely on these crops for increased food security, nutrition, and livestock feed.  When hardwood shade trees get big enough, they can be sold for lumber, which goes for a high price  And many farmers choose to plant traditional medicinal herbs on their farms as well, improving their ability to stay well.

Although agroforestry farms tend to have lower cacao yields than monoculture plantations, farmers' income and their return on labor is much higher. A study in Bolivia by The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL published in 2017 found that, while cacao yields were higher in monoculture, the profits made from other crops grown along with the cacao in agroforestry more than compensated for the reduced cacao yield. They also found that return on labor was about twice as high in agroforestry systems as compared to monoculture systems, making cacao agroforestry more profitable even with smaller yields. 

Here’s a 2 minute Youtube video summing up the results of this study.

 

2. We are committed to supporting biodiversity

The jungle is home to millions of different species who have evolved over billions of years to live together in harmony. The potential contained within jungle ecosystems is almost completely unexplored - for example, over a quarter of the medicines that we use today originated with rainforest plants, yet clinical research has only explored around 1% of rainforest plants for possible medicinal benefits. 
 

Increased biodiversity protects all of the plants, animals, and living creatures naturally present on the land. Cacao is a mid-story tree when it grows in the wild, so they thrive in partial shade - the taller hardwood trees on an agroforestry farm help the cacao trees grow. Agroforestry preserves jungle habitat by definition, which means the entire range of birds, mammals, and other creatures that call the jungle their home always have a place to be. And greater biodiversity protects farmers, as well - if one crop fails, they still have a number of other crops to support their livelihood that season. 


3. We are committed to reversing climate change


The tropical parts of the earth — where cacao grows exclusively — are quite literally the lungs of the planet, “breathing in” CO2 en masse, sequestering it in the soil over time and slowing climate change for generations to come. The average mature tree absorbs about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and the average acre of forest can absorb twice the CO2 produced by the average car’s annual mileage. Agroforestry in humid tropical regions, where cacao loves to grow, has the greatest capacity to sequester carbon.

When we support agricultural systems like agroforestry that sequester large amounts of atmospheric carbon, we are supporting systems that act to balance out unsustainable farming practices in other industries.

Check out the below video for an overview of how carbon sequestration works.

  

RESPONSIBLE SOURCING

We believe in paying a premium to the communities of artisans who steward uncommon cacao genetics and promote a sustainable alternative to the clear-cutting and mono-cropping techniques that have decimated millions of acres of rainforests over the last century. Our farmers are paid premiums well above the commodity market price of cacao, to ensure economic prosperity on a local level, and to secure the availability of superior quality fine flavor cacao for generations to come.

We are currently sourcing agroforestry cacao from three main regions. Click the links to learn more about these origins: