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Feature Story

The journey of a chocolate bar

October 7, 2021

Chocolate bar with cocoa beans and powder
Photo credit: digieye/Shutterstock

Agricultural systems are essential for the health, food security and nutrition, and economic well-being of people around the globe. But unsustainable agricultural expansion has resulted in significant loss of forests and biodiversity, land and soil degradation, and considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Food systems must be transformed, including through sustainable value chains and integrated cross sectoral approaches, in order to address these damaging impacts to our global environment.

This was a key message of a special session at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's World Conservation Congress in Marseilles. Convened by the Global Environment Facility, it examined the issue through the journey of a metaphorical chocolate bar to demonstrate the challenges and potential levers to achieve sustainability in commodity supply chains.

In the last decade, the GEF has directly invested over $525 million and mobilized an additional $4.5 billion in co-financing to promote a transformational shift from agricultural land use and food systems as major drivers of environmental degradation.

Major initiatives on this direction include three integrated approach programs currently being implemented: the Good Growth Partnership, led by UNDP, which is taking deforestation out of commodity supply chains, the Resilient Food Systems, led by IFAD, which is fostering sustainability and resilience for food security in the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa; and the GEF’s globally focused Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program, which brings together governments, companies, civil society, and smallholder farmers for collaborative action on food production landscapes and commodity value chains.

Setting the scene for the session, Paul Hartman, GEF Food Systems Programs Lead said the journey of a chocolate bar was illustrative of the complexity of these efforts.

“The familiar chocolate bar can be comprised of many commodities, the production, sourcing and financing of which can help demonstrate the challenges of sustainability from the farm to the plate, as well as the different actors involved across the supply chain, and the levers at work,” Hartman said.

He added that the session would “look at the ways in which integration across agricultural commodity supply and value chains can contribute to sustainable agriculture for the benefit of biodiversity, people, and the global climate.”

Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Markets at WWF said that global warming would “accentuate” destructive changes in agriculture, continuing: “Forests, fisheries, and soil are being depleted, whether humans are using them or not, just because of climate change.”

He said that 20 to 25 percent of food was now being traded, compared to six percent in the year 2000, and that research suggested that half of it is “produced illegally.” Links were now emerging between environmental degradation and human rights violations over fishing, slave labor, declining production, and child labor and forced migration.

Pablo Pervesi, Chief Innovation, Sustainability, and Quality Officer at the chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut said that his company's goal was “to make sustainable chocolate the norm.”

He added: “We firmly believe that the prosperity of the industry lies in responsible and sustainable use of natural resources. Without environmentally sustainable ways of sourcing embedded in our business model, there will be no chocolate in the future.”

He reported that his company had shrunk its footprint by a quarter over the last four years, was planting many more trees, and would convert 200,000 hectares to agroforestry by 2025. And it was developing “circular energy systems” such as capturing carbon and improving the soil and tree growth by using biochar from cocoa bean waste.

Both he and Isaac Acquah, Coordinator of the Ghana Landscape Project, praised the Cocoa Forest Initiative, focussed on Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire and supported through the World Cocoa Foundation, for making a difference.

Mr Acquah – noting that cocoa accounted for seven percent of his country's GDP and between 20 to 25 percent of its export earnings, while being reported to employ a million households - described efforts including promoting “climate smart farming, supporting cocoa farmers with additional activities for income and diversification.”

Dieter Fisher, Senior Operations Officer at the International Finance Corporation stressed: “When we talk about a commodity like cocoa, we really need to think about smallholder farmers, because the majority of it is produced by them.” They needed to increase their incomes and to see the benefits to them of sustainable practices, if they were going to adopt them, Fisher said, adding: “We need to find the win-win situations where the farmers do better and the value chain does better and becomes more sustainable.”

Sabine Miltner, Program Director of the Conservation and Markets Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, described how financial institutions “are beginning to recognize deforestation as a material risk” with “some of the largest investors in the world” now focusing on land use and emissions from felling forests.

She said that reforming agricultural subsidies should now be “a top priority on the international agenda” adding: “shifting harmful subsidies towards subsidies for good is critical.”

She explained: “If farmers can obtain subsidized agricultural credit without environmental conditionality, no cleverly designed private conservation-friendly financing arrangement will be able to compete.”

Both she and Olivier Tichit, Director of Sustainable Supply Chain at the palm oil company Musim Mas called for a supportive policy environment. Tichit continued: “No landscape will be changed durably and made more resilient without a strong foundation of collaboration – and to collaborate you need an enabling environment.” Respecting the role of local governments in this was particularly important.

Peter de Koning of the Amsterdam Declaration Partnership of nine European governments – which focusses on cocoa, palm oil soy, beef, and leather – described how it worked together with governments, the private sector, civil society organizations, producers, and indigenous peoples organizations and was planning to strengthen its “diplomatic efforts for effective actions by producer and consumer countries.”

Rhoda Dia, of the GEF-supported Resilient Food Systems program, covering 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, reported that it was on track to reach a million direct and indirect beneficiaries with an “overwhelming” adoption of environmentally-friendly technologies by farmers.

Pascale Bonzom, Program Manager of the GEF's Good Growth Partnership, described how it was working to “decouple commodity supply chains from deforestation and conversion while enhancing small producers' livelihoods” in Brazil, Liberia, Indonesia, and Paraguay.

And Tim Brown and William Sutton, co-leads of the GEF's Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program, spoke of how it was promoting a “comprehensive agenda of sustainable food production for a healthier plant and people” including projects focused on cocoa production.