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Power Lunch: The Path Toward Sustainable and Pesticide-Free Cacao

Latest innovations can improve sustainability in cacao production and enhance brand value of chocolate.

By Kevin Chen of Crop Enhancement

If you stumbled upon a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk, couldn’t find its owner and then had an intense craving for quality chocolate, which would you rather buy: chocolate in a conventional package or a beautifully wrapped product that provides details about the origin of the cocoa, the farmers who cultivated it and the techniques used to eliminate pesticides?

A brand’s story plays an important role in establishing its value. Increasingly, a brand’s sustainability attributes are a strategic differentiator that enables food companies to connect with consumers and drive brand loyalty. For chocolate, many of the world’s largest manufacturers are already taking meaningful steps to improve social and environmental responsibility throughout their supply chains.

Technology is rapidly improving our ability to trace ingredients back to the source. Soon, consumers will be able to follow the entire cacao value chain from field to store. Cacao traders like ECOM, as well as integrated cacao procurement and food processors like Cargill, Olam and Barry Callebaut stand to gain by working with manufacturers to deliver more detailed information about social and environmental responsibility at the source of origin.

chocolateLarge manufacturers like Mars (through its Sustainable Cocoa Initiative), Mondelez (through its Cadbury Cocoa Partnership), Nestlé (through Nestlé Cocoa Plan) and Hershey (through its CocoaLink and Learn to Grow programs) have increasingly supported sustainability programs that are making their way into brand communications.

Unfortunately, most of the world’s five million smallholder cacao farmers live in poverty and remain vulnerable to adverse health effects from heightened pesticide exposure. To maximize yields and prevent crop loss in areas with heavy tropical rains, cash-strapped farmers often resort to extensive spraying of generic, off-patent insecticides with little to no protective measures.

What if cacao production wasn’t so dependent on toxic pesticides? Is there a way to chart a course to a pesticide-free brand of cacao? A new crop protection technology, which leverages the latest scientific developments in materials science, offers a solution: a non-toxic, biodegradable crop protection product that can be applied not only to cacao but to all plant surfaces including fruit, leaves, stems, and seeds. The coating prevents pests and pathogens from damaging crops.

This approach enables farmers to disrupt the pest lifecycle while minimizing or even eliminating the use of unfriendly chemicals. Field trials are under way around the world for both cacao and coffee (as well as other crops), with encouraging results in terms of yield enhancement, labor cost reduction, and toxic pesticide mitigation.

We believe that materials science innovations such as this can increase crop yields, lower agricultural input costs, and improve the economic livelihood of cacao farmers around the globe. And it’s not limited to cacao. I’m so excited to be part of a worldwide movement — which is also a tremendous opportunity — to give farmers the tools they need to transition from conventional to sustainable farming.

It’s just as important for manufacturers to communicate new innovations to consumers through their brands. Even for a guilty pleasure like chocolate, many consumers look for ways to make ethical decisions. In the case of cacao, sustainability communication usually takes the form of third-party certification through Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified and Utz programs. Specialty chocolate manufacturers often promote single origin, direct trade and bean-to-bar production (such as Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco).

And demand for this information is rising fast. According to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Sustainability Report, 66 percent of consumers expressed a willingness to pay more for brands that they believe are sustainable—a rise from 55 percent in 2014 and 50 percent in 2013.

It will take ongoing partnerships between agriculture technology companies and the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers and non-governmental organizations (such as the World Cocoa Foundation) to bring safer, sustainable agricultural practices to the smallholder.

The opportunity for innovative, effective, nature-derived crop protection is huge. Beyond offering growers of high-value crops like cacao and coffee a way to minimize or even eliminate the use of pesticides while improving yield, field-level technologies can address two key challenges in the developing world: increasing food production and fostering the development of sustainable agricultural practices that are environmentally friendly and economically viable.

Consumers are increasingly eager to participate in this effort.