Toward a Sustainable Cocoa Sector: Research Report

32913299654_8b895ee571_o.jpgBy Deanna Newsom, Sr. Manager, Research & Science Communications, Evaluation & Research, Rainforest Alliance 

For many years, chocolate companies and other cocoa buyers have shown their commitment to sustainability by sourcing Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa, which is grown on farms that are audited annually for compliance with the rigorous requirements of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard. These companies are often concerned with managing the risks that are inherent to cocoa production in many regions, such as the overuse of pesticides, the destruction of natural ecosystems both on and off the farm, and poverty and child labor.  Additionally, consumer goods companies, brands and retailers recognize the growing consumer demand for sustainable, responsibly sourced products.

The analysis of certified farms’ audit reports in the new research report “Toward a Sustainable Cocoa Sector: Effects of SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certification on Farmer Livelihoods and the Environment,” – as well as the evidence from ten independent studies summarized in the report – show that farms producing Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa are indeed implementing practices that contribute to a more sustainable cocoa sector, including safer and more judicious use of pesticides, the conservation of natural forests, and reduced child labor. In addition, the analysis found that for most SAN criteria, farm performance has been improving over time. In July 2017, when the 2017 SAN Standard comes into effect globally, annual audits will continue to track farm performance and ensure that environmental and social impacts on cocoa farms meet our own and companies’ expectations for these and other areas of potential risks.

The research report examines the performance of nearly 200 certified cocoa farms (and groups of farms) in West Africa, South America and Indonesia, with a focus on these social and environmental risks. By tracking each farm’s rate of compliance with key SAN criteria over multiple years, the report pinpoints where farm performance is improving most rapidly as well as where progress is slow. The end goal is to use these results to understand how Rainforest Alliance and local partners can even better support cocoa farmers to achieve higher levels of compliance and improved sustainability outcomes. The following are some of the findings of the study:

  • Improved compliance regarding pesticides: The research showed that cocoa farms improved their compliance rates with the pesticide-related criteria that we examined, which require practices such as safe storage of pesticides and the use of safety equipment when applying pesticides. This effect was particularly strong in West Africa. We expect to see further improvement with the implementation of the 2017 SAN standard, which increases the number of banned pesticides from 99 to 150 and requires special risk management practices for an additional 170 active ingredients. The new standard also requires that farmers monitor the effectiveness of chemical and non-chemical pest control methods and adjust their pest control plan to reflect those results.
  • Protection of natural ecosystems: The analysis found that all certified cocoa farms complied with criteria requiring the protection of on-farm and off-farm natural areas, but that performance related to tree species diversity and shade cover was mixed, with good performance in South America and weaker performance elsewhere. Despite these varied results, independent scientific research in Colombia found that Rainforest Alliance certified farms have higher on-farm tree species diversity than non-certified farms. The 2017 Standard moves away from a one-sized-fits-all approach to shade cover and tree species diversity by providing crop-specific guidelines, making it easier for farms to understand requirements.
  • Prohibition of child labor: All certified cocoa farms complied with the SAN criteria related to child labor, which prohibit child workers between the ages of 12 and 14, except on family farms when special safety conditions are in place and work does not interfere with school, and puts restrictions on the hours worked by youth aged 15 to 17.  Due to the pervasive nature of this problem in West Africa, the Rainforest Alliance is continuing its focus on the issue and has commissioned the University of Greenwich to conduct a study to determine whether farmer training programs on child labor are effective in reaching parents and farm owners, and what additional support may be required to further ensure compliance. The results of this study will be available in late 2017.

Sustainability is a journey of constant improvement, whether for cocoa, coffee, tea or the thousands of other farm and forest commodities and products certified by the Rainforest Alliance.  As the proverb says, “it takes a village,” and the Rainforest Alliance will continue to work in villages, towns, and cities worldwide to drive a more sustainable future.

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