Cocoa production systems. Agroforesty system vs. full sun plantations: pros and cons

Giulia Porrini
I have been introduced to cocoa during my MBA in Development Economics, when I was doing a research about indigenous small cocoa farmers in Costa Rica and Panama. Addicted to cocoa, I have been travelling and studying plantations in South America, always eager to learn more. Graduated at the Italian Master Chocolatier Academy (who knew?), still working with cocoa producers, founder of CocoaConnection.

Agroforestry” is defined as a land use system in which woody species (trees or shrubs) are grown intentionally in combination with agricultural crops or cattle on the same land, either simultaneously or in sequence. Emerged during the Green Revolution, this system has been considered a sustainable method, especially in the tropical area, given its similarity to the primary forest structure. Since the 1980s it has been developed by learning from traditional indigenous systems to work more closely with the fertility of marginal lands through the use of less intensive cultivation and fallow periods.

Cocoa is historically native of the rainforest in the upper Amazonian region; recent studies prove that its consumption in this area dates back to even more than 5,000 years ago. Naturally then, cocoa trees grew deep in the forest in combination with other species, developing reciprocal beneficial relations. In particular, cocoa not only tolerates the presence of other plants, but also profits from them.  The cocoa tree takes advantage of both, the shade guaranteed by the forest canopy during its early stage and productive phase, and from a more nutrient rich soil structure.

When European colonialists introduced cocoa in Africa in the 19th century, they implement a different cropping system: the full sun plantations. This monoculture system, where trees grow in rows with no shade nor interaction with other plants, gradually replaced the agroforestry system given the higher yield provided. The increase in productivity is undeniable, but the literature seems to agree that it is only a short-term increase. As trees age beyond 15–20 years, cacao yields decrease due a series of factors determined by this system. In the long-term, in fact, the direct sunlight physiologically stresses the cacao trees, making them more susceptible to pests and diseases. In a monoculture, trees growing close together are usually clones, genetically identical duplicate of a mother plant originated from its asexual reproduction. The idea is to have more uniform plants and, therefore, fruits; but it also means that the plants react in the same way to bugs, bacteria or other external attacks increasing the probability of a rapid contamination in the whole plantation. Finally, the soil quality degrades, easily depleted of nutrients, requiring costly fertilizers to maintain production.

Wild agroforestry system in Bolivia. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

This drastic reduction in production often results in the abandonment of plantations and the shift of the agricultural frontier towards the surrounding forests. This means that applications of full sun cultivation system  have resulted, and still do, in a constant deforestation and rain forest degradation process. For example, in the Guinean rainforest of West Africa, an area extending from Guinea to Cameroon, identified as a global biodiversity hotspot, cocoa is the most widespread crop and full-sun system is currently the most used cocoa cultivation. Farms usually follow a model referred to as short-term “boom-and-bust cycles”. Primary or secondary forests are selectively cleared by burning, and cocoa is planted along with understory food crops. When, after 20-25 years of cropping, the production decreases significantly, plantations are abandoned, and the centre of cocoa production typically moves to other areas. A significant reduction of forest cover ranging from 1.2 to 2.2 million hectares between 1955 and 1993 has been proven, coinciding with the strong increases in cocoa and coffee production.

Tool used to prune trees and harvest low fruits. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Farmers do not always move to other areas; in some cases, they invest time and money to keep the old plantations productive. However, it must be pointed out that, while the overaged tree stocks can be rehabilitated by implementing various measures, problems such as declining soil fertility, farmer poverty and climate change adaptation call for more decisive solutions.

The agroforestry system, on the other hand, is recognized as a powerful way to benefit the plant health and quality itself providing ecologically sustainable land use. It combines economic requirements with sociocultural and environmental benefits.

The agroforestry system, also called cabruca system in Brazil, is an artificial imitation of a natural forest ecosystem where cocoa grows with other fruit and timber trees providing shade and affecting climate, humidity and soil. Besides the positive effects on the cocoa plant in terms of beans quality, which has been proven to depend not only on the cocoa genotype but also on the environmental conditions, this extensive cultivation provides a number of ecosystem services.

It maintains the biodiversity of the flora and the fauna, can re-establish part of the destroyed forest reserves and protects the soil from the damage caused by sun, wind, and rain. It improves the soil structure increasing the nutrients availability which then enhance production. Finally, the protection and conservation of the forest is a crucial point to help to mitigate climate change through the sequestration of carbon from the air into soils and biomass.

From an economic point of view, the product diversification that agroforestry brings with it improves farmers livelihood by differentiating their source of income, and contributing to the family food security. Traditionally, in fact, cocoa is grown with bananas, plantains, peach palms, yucca and other tuber fruits, citrus fruits, vegetables, mango and other tropical local fruits as well as cattle and timber. Cocoa provides two harvesting times every year, a major one and a smaller one, which means that in a monoculture the family has no other source of income for the rest of the year. The agroforestry system instead allows farmers to have goods to sell all year around. Although this kind of products generally generates modest cash incomes, it provides farmers for the everyday livelihood at a low cash costs, extremely important especially in more isolated areas. Often in remote villages every farmer produces a number of vegetables and fruits along with cocoa and exchanges them all year around for what is needed in the family. They do it within the village itself, making a varied diet attainable with no need to go to the closest, likely distant, market where they go when cash or other goods are necessary.

Moreover, shade cocoa system generally uses little to no chemical inputs and is considered a “naturally organic” system. This eco-friendly practice is part of the indigenous culture: it is always been a habit rather than an aware choice. Agrochemicals are not available where they live and would be an important cost in the family balance. Nowadays farmers are generally more aware of the organic cropping benefits for their health and the environment well-being; nevertheless, it often happens that they are convinced by buyers to use chemicals to enhance the yield with the promise of a higher income the following year.

On the other hand, the intensive production system requires this kind of chemical input. Monocropping is generally associated with greater use of fertilizers, pesticides, modified soil tillage, and improved seeds in comparison with the traditional mixed crop systems.  Moreover, findings highlight the potential of agroforestry to reconcile ecologically sustainable land use with natural, cost-effective pest management. Not only is the production organic, with positive effects on consumers, but it is the system itself that prevents diseases. Nonetheless, disease management activities are  required: farmers need to regularly operate plants control and pruning.  Surely, the use of agrochemicals makes the job easier for the farmers, but also puts the plants in a situation of dependence on chemicals input, with the negative effects on the soil health mentioned above.

Full sun plantation in Brazil. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Farmers using intensive production techniques rely on chemical inputs, while they are not always able to afford them. They use cocoa revenues to purchase the inputs for this intensive monocrop farming. Specifically, according to a recent report, farmers with intensive monocrop fields sell double the amount of cocoa than farmers using non-intensive agriculture, and the inputs they use cost 29 times the cost of inputs for non-intensified agriculture[5].

Furthermore, monoculture threatens cocoa biodiversity. As already mentioned at the beginning, if a more uniform and consistent yield fulfils the commercial need for a mass international market, it has a negative impact on the biodiversity of a crop that can be extremely rich in variety. Instead of the more productive and disease-resistant clones used in the full sun system, cocoa trees inside a forest reproduce constantly, crossing their genotypes, and continuing to evolve according to the biological laws of the specific geographical area.

In all, we are facing the trade-off between the conservation of biodiversity, guaranteed by the agroforestry system, and the economic benefits deriving from a more intensive use of land, the latter encouraged by the demand for a growing volume of agricultural production by large processing and manufacturing companies. Strictly speaking, this is the trade-off between shorter-term economic maximization and long-term ecological sustainability.

Higher short-term yields from increasing areas under cultivation in this monoculture farming system have contributed to making whole countries rely on cocoa for their economic development. Take, for example, Côte D’Ivoire, ranked now as the top producer in the world. The negative consequences, including biodiversity loss, soil fertility depletion, and soil quality degradation are all apparent in there. These aspects have, incredibly, received very little attention, considering the type and magnitude of such agro-ecological consequences within the current context of climate change.

In order to provide a clearer idea of what was presented above, we compare the main characteristics of the two system in the next table.

Lower productivity per hectare Short-term higher productivity per hectare  
Naturally more disease-resistant plants Plants are more susceptible to pests and diseases
Cocoa variety preservation Use of clones
Rainforest conservation/destroyed forest reserves re-establishment, flora and fauna biodiversity, improved soil health and climate change mitigation Deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil fertility depletion and soil quality degradation
Farmers differentiated income, food security Reliance on cocoa yields twice a year
No agrochemicals Dependence on agrochemicals

Beside the economic, environmental, ecological, and health related analysis presented, a final consideration is needed regarding the importance of the role that cocoa plays in the culture and livelihood of indigenous producers. Cocoa, and the agroforestry system in which it grows, are not only an agriculture system, but the way of living of rainforest inhabitants. In their villages, this practise has been the same since ancient times, and should not be changed to meet the international demand for higher production.

In the future a lot of efforts are necessary in order to enhance cocoa quality, protect cocoa farmers and preserve the rainforest. In particular, it is important to work towards two directions.

On one side: know-how and expertise on sustainable agricultural practices, costs, and benefits need to be further developed and made accessible to producers and consumers. Climate change is a reality and if cocoa production is a mean to help mitigate it, everybody needs to be informed and act accordingly.

On the other, all the efforts to put in place sustainable initiatives need to be effectively communicated to consumers. When consumers buy chocolate at the supermarket, they rarely know about the way cocoa is produced. Nothing or too little about farmers and cropping system is communicated, and it is hard to make an aware and informed purchase choice. On the contrary, transparency and communication are the first step to build a trust relation between producers and consumers, in order to give a fair value to products deriving from a traditional, healthy and environment-friendly way of production.

Giulia Porrini

MBA development economics