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The bitter-sweet taste of Indonesia’s chocolate

by Georgina Smith | @georginajsmith | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Wednesday, 9 December 2015 03:41 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

An environmental disaster is unfolding in Asia. The “haze” plumes of smoke from Indonesia, where El Nino has stirred up peatland fires, have since September topped average daily emissions in the United States

Around 70 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture, livestock; fishery and forestry activities, the majority from forest and peat clearance – mostly to plant palm oil.

Indonesia has pledged emission cuts of 29 percent by 2030 from current rates - more if it receives financial support. But the haze is a complex problem and there are no single solutions.

Protecting the forests is one thing; helping farmers earn a living so they don’t destroy the forest is another. In comparison to energy, transport and construction sectors, Indonesia’s land and forestry sector lags behind in tackling emissions.

A sticky situation

The biggest culprit is undoubtedly palm oil. But unfortunately for chocolate-lovers, cocoa is up there too. Demand for chocolate is on the rise in Asia, and Indonesia is the world’s third largest cocoa producer.

Although cocoa agroforests maintain high levels of biodiversity, they cannot replace primary forest.

And with high levels of fertilizer and pesticide used in cocoa production, making chocolate sustainable is a major concern. Who wants to make a guilty treat for sustainable-savvy consumers more guilt-ridden? 

Smallholder farmers, who produce more than 80 percent of Indonesia’s cocoa, need to gain from any initiative to reduce emissions. Planting trees for carbon offsets doesn’t wash anymore – that’s often seen as nothing more than sustainability lip-service.

Enter insetting. Basically, this is a process of embedding sustainable activities directly into the cocoa supply chain of large companies, rather than paying for offsetting. Reducing costs – and GHG emissions – within direct supply chains of chocolate companies: that’s a more robust approach.

But will it work?

It’s a striking fact that multinational exporters, processors and manufacturers sourcing cocoa beans in Indonesia don’t know what their carbon footprint is – at a value chain, sector or product level.

That will have to change: recent deals show that sustainability is affecting bottom-lines and billion-dollar business.

In the words of big data revolutionaries: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Insight into what agricultural practices enhance or deplete carbon stocks is the first step to making carbon credit schemes.

Paving the way for product branding as low carbon or carbon neutral, carbon insetting can help the private sector claim premium prices and in-set them into the value chain, so benefits get back to the farmers.

That involves analyzing agricultural practices that best tackle emissions – a complicated process which will analyze everything from fertilizer use to carbon storage capacity, temperature, rainfall in specific locations and soil type.

With the support of the Sustainable Cocoa Production Program, CIAT will use the massive COCOATRACE database of 60,000 farms to assess GHG emissions on thirty plots in thirty production systems. The tool already exists, but it does not include data for trees used in cocoa production.

“What we do is incorporate and analyze to assess carbon stock and footprints for the entire cocoa sector in Indonesia,” said Peter Läderach, leader of the Climate Change Program at CIAT. “This is the most amazing sample that we will ever come across,” he added.

Indonesia’s government has pledged US$95 million to revitalize the cocoa sector and double national output in two years. Yet the country is already far behind other cocoa-producing countries in realizing its export potential. Even cocoa farmers are switching to more lucrative crops like palm oil.

Industry players know they have to make changes to keep pace with ethnically-savvy consumers and supply a sweeter - if not entirely guilt-free – chocolate treat.

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