In celebration of World Chocolate Day, we caught up with Professor David Guest, our favourite chocolate scientist (perhaps that just makes him our favourite scientist) to find out about the state of the food of the gods.
Does chocolate improve your health? For many of us, the pleasure of eating a smooth, sweet, delicate portion of melt-in-the-mouth chocolate has immediate benefits in improving psychological happiness and lowering blood pressure. Some chocolate lovers would suggest it is an essential food item, and a necessary part of daily life.
Improving the health and happiness of the consumer is one thing, but what of the health and livelihoods of the people who produce our favourite luxury good?
Last time we caught up with plant pathologist, Professor David Guest from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, the Sydney Institute of Agriculture, and the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, he spoke of an impending global chocolate shortage (cue dramatic music and bloodcurdling screams).
Cocoa is produced from the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao – literally meaning ‘food of the gods – grown in equatorial climates.
"Threats to cacao production have included pests and diseases, ageing plantations, poorly trained farmers and poorly managed trees, climate change, dependence on a narrow genetic base for plants, and easier crops to grow, such as oil palm and maize."
Increases in demand in developing economies and trends in America, Europe and Australia towards niche, single origin and dark chocolates were also cited as placing additional stress on supplies.
David said the consensus was that global production needed to increase by one million tonnes per year by 2020 – from about 4 million tonnes – to meet global demand.
To follow up, there is good news and there is chocolate news.
Fortunately, in West African nations such as Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, where more 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, farmers have had a good year. Higher than expected rainfall has improved crop yields and the cacao-growing area has expanded, partly because of rainforest clearing.
“The economic slowdown is also a factor for a slower uptake of chocolate products in countries such as India and China.
“We actually have a small oversupply of cocoa, so the crisis has been abated for now.”
“But dark clouds are looming on the horizon.”
The health and livelihoods of farmers are critical factors for continued supply.
To ensure the medium-term and long-term survival of cocoa, we need to look at the challenges from an integrated perspective.
“For many years we have been conducting training programs that have been developed from the best of our research. The keys to reducing diseases and pests are sanitation, pruning and regular harvesting. The keys to improving yields include the use of appropriate fertilisers, selecting better genotypes of cacao, improving crop and soil management, and improving technical support.
“The uptake of these practices has not permeated as much as we would expect, and the impact has been less than anticipated. Of course, we are asking ‘why?’
“I’m as guilty as any other scientist in becoming incredibly focused on my area of expertise. It’s not until we reach out and chat to farmers, and scientists in other disciplines, that we consider issues differently and start to truly collaborate to come up with a picture that gives us a view from all angles.
“Smallholder farmers are busy. They have many competing interests, cultural and family obligations and must work on building social capital. But a big factor limiting cocoa productivity is health.”
In Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, it’s estimated that 25-30% of a farmer’s labour time is lost because of ill health and disease.
Poor health is not just impacting the current farming community.
“Childhood nutrition is strongly linked to productivity and healthiness in adulthood. An estimated 90% of children in cocoa-farming villages of south Bougainville are stunted, compromising their learning, development, future health and ability to become productive cocoa farmers,” David said.
“A recent Save the Children/Frontier Economics study estimated that childhood undernutrition costs the PNG economy up to $US1.5 billion a year, 8.5% of GDP, because of the consequence undernutrition will have on future labour productivity.
The average age of a cacao farmer in these countries is 56, and we are facing an increasing average age, and decline in productivity because of age.
“The current low prices for cocoa also act as a disincentive for younger farmers and investment in improved productivity and sustainability. If we understand the constraints, we might improve the effectiveness of interventions to improve cocoa productivity, making it a more rewarding livelihood to attract a new generation of smallholder farmers.”
With support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Australia-Indonesia Centre, Professor Guest and his colleagues are taking a novel, holistic approach that involves crop complementing and crop management training with programs to diversify incomes, improve market access and address community health issues.
“To ensure the medium-term and long-term survival of cocoa, we need to look at the challenges from an integrated perspective. We are working closely with colleagues in the Sydney Medical School to promote a truly ‘one-health’ approach to improve the health and nutrition of cocoa farming communities so that they are more productive.
“We are also working with cocoa farmers to investigate the viability of intensifying crops and opening up sections of their land for complementary crops and livestock. Introducing more women into these farming communities is also a priority.
The best news this World Chocolate Day is that eating chocolate is supporting farmers, so when you chomp on a chunk of chocolate, you can say ‘it’s good for the farmers’, but this is a highly complex industry that has a long way to go in addressing the poverty of farmers.
“I’m the first person to celebrate chocolate, and I am very keen to continue enjoying chocolate but when I hear that cocoa farmers in West Africa are earning the equivalent of $1.25 per day, it spurs me to take action in the regions I work with to identify how we can improve the situation for these farmers to get a decent cut of the profits and improve their livelihoods.
“Chocolate manufacturers are coming to the realisation that beans produced in the region immediately north of Australia are of premium quality, so farmers are identifying how they can differentiate their product and sell it at an appropriate price to a number of buyers.”
So the immediate crisis might be averted, but this important… very important work continues.