In Germany, we eat almost 10 kg of chocolate per capita and year. This puts us at the top of the world in terms of consumption. To produce the Germans’ favorite sweet, you need one ingredient in particular: cocoa. And preferably more and more of it – because the appetite for chocolate is not decreasing, it is increasing. At the moment, however, there are no increased yields in cocoa cultivation, but rather a decline. The main reasons for this are the consequences of climate change and our treatment of nature. More droughts, increased pest infestation, less fertile soils – these are the challenges cocoa farmers around the world have to deal with. But what exactly does a cocoa tree need in order to grow and blossom? And how can our increasing chocolate consumption be combined with a sustainable cocoa economy? We will explore these questions and also explain to you how our cocoa is grown in Ghana.
What does a cocoa tree need to grow well?
Let’s start from the beginning. To make chocolate, you need cocoa. This is obtained from seeds, the so-called cocoa beans, which are found in the fruits or pods of the cocoa tree. The cocoa tree is a very sensitive plant, with many special features.
It only grows in certain regions near the equator – also known as the cocoa belt – where there is high humidity, plenty of rainfall and consistently high temperatures. If these fall below 16 or above 30 degrees Celsius, the tree freezes or dries out. At a distance of more than 20 degrees of latitude from the equator the plant already stops bearing fruit.
Sufficient shade is also important for cocoa cultivation. To ensure this, so-called shade trees are usually planted on cocoa plantations. These are large trees, such as banana or coconut palms, which provide shade for the smaller cocoa trees. It might be interesting to know that cocoa trees can actually grow very tall themselves (up to 20 m). On plantations, however, they are usually pruned to a height of a few meters so that the farmers can better access the fruits.
And this brings us to the next special feature of the cocoa tree. In order to bear fruit, the tree must first blossom. However, the blossoms of the cocoa tree do not grow at the end of the thin branches like other fruit blossoms, but directly on the trunk.
Cocoa trees bloom throughout the year and can bear up to 100,000 flowers in this time under good conditions. Of these, however, only a few actually become cocoa fruits. For this to happen, the blossoms have to be pollinated. And not by bees or wasps, but by midges, or more precisely biting midges. Only these are small enough to crawl into the cocoa flowers. Like the cocoa tree, they prefer to live in shady areas and nest in rotting leaves on the ground. Does that mean we don’t need bees on our cocoa farms? Of course not, because without the bees, many other plants that grow on the cocoa farms would not be pollinated. Without bees, there would be no shade trees and no fertile soil. That’s why many organic cocoa farmers even plant bees themselves on their cocoa farms to ensure pollination of the plants around the cocoa tree and to diversify their income by selling the honey.
Back to the pollination of our cacao trees: The pollination by mosquitoes unfortunately is often not enough. The tiny animals only achieve a pollination rate of around 4%, and only so if both the trees and the mosquitoes are exposed to good conditions. In conventional cocoa farming in particular, insects are destroyed by the use of pesticides or do not have enough shade and foliage in which to roost. For this reason, it is now common practice on many plantations for blossoms to be pollinated by hand. Of course, this is not necessary on the cocoa farms of our partner initiative Yayra Glover Ltd. Couldn’t we just forget about biodiversity and insects then and use artificial pollination and pesticides to satisfy the growing hunger for chocolate?
Biodiversity – beneficial or detrimental to high yields?
To cut a long story short: No, manual pollination and chemicals are obviously not the solution. They may increase yields in the short term, but they do not ensure healthy tree survival and good yields in the long term. It should also be noted that a higher pollination rate does not always ensure that more fruits will grow to full maturity. Many of the demanding cocoa pods already die before this happens. There are various reasons for this: Drought, moisture, fungal attack, pests or incorrect light and temperature conditions due to climatic fluctuations. In order to contain these threats to the cocoa fruit, a healthy ecosystem with diverse plant and animal species is beneficial.
By growing a variety of trees and crops and protecting insects and other small animals, the risk of disease can be greatly reduced. The increased spacing between trees alone inhibits the rapid spread of diseases, and pests are often eaten by other animals. In addition, a variety of plants provide fertile soils through their foliage and other organic shedding. These are essential for good tree growth and long-lasting harvests. Water supply is equally important. In healthy soils with many plants, water can be better stored to be available during dry periods. At the same time, the different plants absorb excess liquid better during heavy rains and thus protect against flooding.
Larger older trees can provide the shade needed for cocoa trees and offer habitat for animals. But people also benefit from more biodiversity in cocoa farming, because it gives cocoa farmers the opportunity to diversify their income. Instead of only growing cocoa and being dependent on its yields and harvest times, they can also harvest other fruits such as coconuts, plantains or mangos and sell them. You can read more about income diversification here.
Biodiversity can thus be a real benefit not only ecologically, but also economically and socially.
How is the cocoa for fairafric grown?
The cocoa trees on the organic cocoa plantations cultivated by farmers of the Yayra Glover Initiative are forastero trees, which are naturally very robust and resilient. The trees are not watered artificially. In order for them to survive in periods of drought, leaves or even the trunks of the plantain trees, which contain a lot of water, are placed around the roots. The blossoms of the cacao trees are also not pollinated by hand. However, teams of so-called “extension officers” ensure that the yields increase and the quality of the cocoa is high. They ride their mopeds from village to village, visit the farmers and provide on-site training on how to handle the sensitive cocoa trees. As a result, yields on the organic cocoa farmsare exceptionally high. A plant-based biological pesticide is used against pests that are not eaten by other animals. This allows crops to be protected without putting the health of the farmers and biodiversity at risk.
How can we all contribute to biodiversity?
Biodiversity is not only important on cocoa farms in Ghana. Around the world, farmers are increasingly affected by infertile soils, pests and insect mortality. It is important that we all strive for more biodiversity, whether through active engagement or conscious consumption. Lastly, we’ve provided you with a small list of tips for more biodiversity.
If we want to continue eating chocolate in the future, we need to manage cocoa in a more sustainable way. Pesticides, monocultures and artificial pollination may lead to high yields in the short term – but at a high price. Soils become infertile, animals lose their habitats, and diseases can spread more quickly. In addition, the people on the plantations have to artificially pollinate the cocoa blossoms in tedious work and are sometimes exposed to heavy chemicals. But there is another way. By promoting ecological cocoa cultivation, biodiversity and a general commitment to combating climate change and its consequences, people and nature can benefit and chocolate can still be enjoyed many years from now.