European Cocoa Forum highlights key sustainability issues

The European Cocoa Forum brought industry leaders together to discuss a host of key issues at the heart of the sector. Neill Barston reports from Lisbon, Portugal

Crucial issues surrounding sustainability proved core themes dominating this year’s European Cocoa Forum event in Portugal.

Taking place at Pestana Palace in Lisbon last month, it attracted 350 senior professionals from across the sector, eager to learn more on initiatives tackling key challenges facing the industry.

Organised by the European Cocoa Association, the forum sought to address major matters including concerns regarding environmental management and payment of farmers.

During the three-day conference, members were offered demonstrations on chocolate making practices, as well as hearing keynote presentations on how technology, including digital systems and potential use of blockchain could have a major positive impact on agricultural productivity.

As ECA chairman Steven Retzlaff revealed to Confectionery Production ahead of the event, the sector continues to face a number of significant challenges.

On sustainability, he explained that ‘tropical agricultural production is more than ever under severe pressure,’ including requirements to maintain the highest food safety standards, as well as being required to think creatively to produce more with less land.

He also highlighted wider concerns about levels of illegal deforestation in cocoa growing regions, which said required combined inter-agency action to address.

Speaking at the conference, he said: “Consumers and governments are more and more focused on having a transparent supply chain – there is no room to hide. The cocoa processing industry has experienced broad-based growth in most regions of the world.

“The industry is also continuing to make investment – most of this in cocoa growing origins, so I think this is a positive time for many of the players in the sector. But we have some important challenges. As we look forward, sustainability is going to be one of the core elements on our agenda. There will be strong focus on issues of illegal deforestation, child labour and traceability,” explained Retzlaff.

He added that there were a number of other pressing issues facing the industry as a whole, including greater monitoring of businesses’ carbon footprints, responding to renewed EU legislation affecting the sector, as support for farming communities, including addressing calls for enhanced level of payments.

The latter theme was taken up by speakers representing cocoa growing nations, including Ivory Coast government minister Alain-Richard Donwahi.

He acknowledged that ‘the world is changing’ and that nations, including cocoa growing regions, needed to adapt to new realities that required improved agricultural and environmental practices.

Donwahi said: “There’s a large amount of people from our country that make their living from agriculture – when cocoa goes well, everything goes well. But the current system of farming takes up a lot of our forests and this has been a weak year,” noting that farmers faced becoming locked in a ‘vicious cycle of poverty’ unless sustainable patterns of agro-forestry were practiced within the country.

Furthermore, Joseph Aidoo, chief executive of Ghana’s Cocoa Board, outlined his country’s progress towards raising standards of living for cocoa farmers.

“For us to have a sustainable industry, all of us will have to find a living income for farmers,” explained Aidoo, who noted that it was presently the case that Ghana’s government has had to subsidise cocoa growing operations as the present rates of payment to farmers were so low, which he said was not sustainable.

He expressed concern that both Ghana and Ivory Coast had been particularly affected over the past couple of decades, as prices of cocoa continued to fall. Consequently, he said that many cocoa farmers had been forced to switch into other crops.

As a result, he said authorities in the two countries had worked together to arrive at an agreed ‘floor price’ for minimum payment for cocoa of $2,600 per tonne, with at least 70 per cent of this legally having to go to the farmers to ensure a minimum standard of living for them. As part of this, it is proposed to have a commercial premium ‘living differential’ payment of $400 a tonne to further directly assist.

Discussion then turned to how such a system could be managed, with Ivory Coast and Ghana representatives suggesting that a ‘production ceiling’ be placed on cocoa crops.

This in turn led to questions from delegates over how such measures could be practically monitored, and whether pursuing that strategy would be the best way to assist farmers.

The session also addressed emerging technology including blockchain, with its usage expected to be dramatically increased in agriculture over the next decade to aid transparency and security of payments.

Optimising cocoa quality

For its third panel, the forum examined measures to optimise cocoa quality, which was led by a keynote address from Dr Sabine Julicher, Director for Food and Feed Safety, innovation, DG Sante, of the European Commission.

She explained that EU legislation from the European Commission as it relates to wider food safety matters was operating from a stable framework. Its work, she said, had included focusing on strong data-driven analysis of overall trends within the sector in terms of devising its policies in regard to global trade.

In addition, she added that it was working with the industry in order to further enhance its legislative programme, overseen by its agency, the European Food Safety Authority.

She noted that there had been calls for high levels of data transparency from industry in terms of devising its agenda, which had in part been driven by greater consumer awareness.

One area specifically relevant to confectionery was the regulation of the presence of cadmium in chocolate, which can be harmful to human health, and as such, new maximum limits within the EU have come into force in the EU this year.

Dr Darin Sukha, food technologist at the University of the West Indies, reported there had been significant strides made in terms of improving cocoa bean fermentation processes.

He also noted sustained campaigns on providing greater education for cocoa farmers in encouraging them to taste higher grades of chocolate that require specific treatment of crops, which he said was bringing about improved harvest yields.

Child labour measures

For the event’s fourth panel, major issues of child labour and deforestation were addressed at the event.

Among the speakers was Benjamin Smith, senior specialist at the International Labour Organisation. His presentation examined measures being taken in key markets to tackle child labour.

He noted that on a global level, efforts to address the issue were having a positive effect overall, but concerns remained over progress rates within the cocoa sector.

“Dollar for dollar, our research has found that by far the best investment governments can make in eliminating child poverty is through educating girls, so this is critically important,” explained the analyst, with the conference noting that combined action on such major issues as child labour, deforestation and farmer payment levels would offer the best hope of achieving effective solutions.

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