Unless wages rise for growers, the future of cocoa is hazy.
Sustainable Cocoa
Credit: © Peter Langer/Getty Images/Perspectives

The future of one of the world's most beloved crops—the one that gives us chocolate—was called into question at this year's World Cocoa Conference, where experts advised that a variety of issues could jeopardize sustainability. World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) president Barry Parkin issued a warning to the industry that unless wages rise for growers, the future of cocoa is hazy.

The cocoa industry initiative CocoaAction, founded in 2014 by nine of the largest manufacturers and distributors in the cocoa industry—including Hershey, Ferrero, Nestle, and more—has made it its mission to create a more sustainable future for the crop. According to the head of sourcing for Mars—the company behind M&Ms, Snickers, Twix, and numerous other beloved candy bars—in order to "get to sustainable," the industry has to "triple or quadruple the income" for farmers. "That's the harsh reality... to get to a living income, a level where farmers are thriving, where the next generation want to be farms, it's a big big step," he adds.

According to Confectionary News, the 100-member WCF and its CocoaAction committee hopes to raise the quality of life for those producing their cocoa crops. In fact, number of European civil organizations have already called upon these industry giants to boost farmers' incomes.

However, in order to raise farmers' wages around the world, chocolate companies will have to pay double the current market price. Maintaining their current pricing will mean significantly upping the scale of farming operations around the globe. "We need to increase scale... clearly we've got to get to millions of farmers," says Parkin, who adds that closing the income gap will "certainly require further productivity" and "may require higher farm gate prices and... alternative crops or larger land."

For producers, these concerns aren't the only major issues facing their cocoa harvests. According to the Mars representative, a virus called the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease has become more prevalent in West Africa and will "hurt and harm the cocoa crop," potentially devastating the area's production.

Climate change is also a major concern for growers, as analysts from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture have predicted a 57 percent reduction in "high climatic suitability areas" by 2050 in Cote D'Ivore, the world's top cocoa producing nation. This rapid reduction in growing area has lit a fire under producers like Parkin, who says accelerating the foundation's work is pivotal at this perilous point in time for the cocoa industry.

Though some World Cocoa Conference-goers questioned the industry giants of CocoaAction's genuine concern for the well-being of farmers, Parkin insists their motivation for solving these issues facing cocoa growth is rooted in ethics. "It's unacceptable to have poverty in our supply chains, it's unacceptable to have deforestation, it's unacceptable to have human rights issues," he says. However, he does note that he and his fellow industry insiders do hope to continue to grow their chocolate businesses—and cocoa is key to that. "We can only be successful as industry players if the farmers are successful."