Marking the UN’s International Day of Forests (21 March), Cargill exclusively tells Kennedy’s Confection the progress it has made towards building a cocoa sector where farming and forests can fully coexist.  

Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change, avoiding erosion and increasing biodiversity. However, many of the world’s tropical forests are at risk and urgent action is needed. At the same time, many producer communities who are engaged in nearby farming, are struggling to secure a stable livelihood.   

Deforestation and forest degradation continue to be a major concern among cocoa-growing regions, often caused when small-scale cocoa farming encroaches on protected areas. Cargill takes a holistic approach to the interrelated challenges of forests and climate, as part of the Cargill Cocoa Promise and the company’s Protect Our Planet Strategic Action Plan. Key focus areas include mapping supply chains, integrating improved cocoa farming practices, including agroforestry, and engaging cocoa-sector stakeholders in protecting natural resources. 

“This year’s International Day of Forests theme, ‘Forests and Health’ is particularly apt, given how the health of forests and the health of cocoa communities can reinforce one another,” said Sebastiaan van der Hoek, Cargill’s advisor on climate and land use. “Cargill believes that forests and farming can and must coexist to sustain the health of people and our planet.” 

The first step that Cargill takes is mapping out its supply chain to understand where farms are located, how they are expanding or moving, and where that may put pressure on forest systems. Using GPS polygon maps it has successfully mapped out 70% of the farms in the Cargill Cocoa Promise supply chain partner network. Analysts then overlay these maps with geospatial data on forests to determine whether forest loss has occurred within or around those farms. If deforestation is detected, Cargill relies on field verification visits to uncover the root causes and identify ways to work with the farmers and communities to find solutions.

“Cargill believes that forests and farming can and must coexist to sustain the health of people and our planet.”

First-mile digital traceability is another fundamental tool to understand where cocoa comes from and the circumstances under which it was produced. Cargill’s barcoding systems help farmer organizations trace bags of cocoa beans back to the exact farm that supplied them. This practice will become more important for all participants in the value chain as new regulations come into effect in destination countries requiring companies to show that cocoa has not come from deforested areas. 

“The systems we’ve invested in have enabled us to have unprecedented visibility into our supply chain and areas at risk of deforestation. It also gives us the opportunity to take more focused action on the ground, including engaging directly with farmers to raise awareness of deforestation issues, driving the adoption of good agricultural practices, and increasing overall productivity without expanding new agricultural land into forest areas,” said van der Hoek. 

Another key focus area for Cargill is agroforestry, or the integration of forest trees into cocoa landscapes. With the support of partners like PUR Projet, Cargill has provided more than 1 million trees since 2017 and helped more than 5,000 farmers in West Africa adopt agroforestry practices in 2021.   

“Cocoa is a sensitive crop. Variations in climate can cause big differences in yields or spark disease infestations, so greater resilience will be key as climate impacts increase in the coming years. Since cocoa can thrive under a shade canopy, adding trees and managing them appropriately could mean stabilized or improved yields,” explained van der Hoek. “When you integrate new tree species, you may also end up with fruits, nuts or other products that can supplement local diets or help generate income beyond cocoa. It all adds up to more profitable farms that support cocoa-growing families – reinforcing the connection between forests and health.” 

He added: “adopting agroforestry is delicate work – but here we lean on the agronomic expertise and ingenuity of cocoa farmers, who are experts in these areas. With technical support from our partners, they can go even further in making agroforestry work for them.” 

The use of technological solutions and agroforestry can be effective interventions to help both forest health and cocoa community health at the same time. But it isn’t a substitute for protecting native forests in the first place. 

Cargill and other cocoa companies have made good progress mapping out their own vertical supply chains to understand potential risks. But by definition, those supply chains trace back to farms that are already established. Intervening there is important, but it may not always address areas where forests are in greatest danger of being converted to becoming cocoa farms some years from now. 

Looking ahead, van der Hoek took an optimistic view: “Now is the time for even more collaborative action, creating mechanisms that value and protect the forests that are still standing and reward farmers and others for contributing towards that goal. It can be done, and we look forward to playing our part in the next phase of progress toward a thriving, deforestation-free cocoa sector.” 

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Editor: Kiran Grewal