A taste for sustainability
Facing the prospect of a global shortfall in cocoa production of one million tonnes by 2020, Mars Chocolate has implemented a worldwide sustainability initiative, working with the five million smallholders who grow the majority of the world's cocoa - "putting farmers first" to increase yield.
Mars' programme is built around a pledge, made in 2009, to purchase the entirety of its cocoa supply from certified sustainable sources by 2020.
"Significant progress" has been made in the three years since - 10% of cocoa purchased was certified sustainable in 2011 and forecasts show 2012 will see the firm exceed its goal of 20% for the year.
Making the announcement that nearly 90,000 tonnes of certified cocoa will be bought this year, Mars says: "We believe certification is the best tool industry has to support effective extension services to reach as many of the world's five to six million cocoa farmers as possible and provide them with the material support and organization they need to be successful."
Now the largest purchaser of certified cocoa in the world, Mars says its sustainable cocoa initiative is one of the largest, most far-reaching efforts within the cocoa industry to increase productivity, strengthen communities, and encourage better farmer incomes.
Global procurement and sustainability head Barry Parkin says: "A successful certification programme is so important to our effort because it is the most effective tool we currently have to reach millions of cocoa farmers at scale.
"It took a lot of hard work from farmers, certifiers, and others along the supply chain to meet this milestone, and we are pleased to see their energy paying off."
Reaching out to the millions of smallholders who grow the world's cocoa is a challenge in itself. Mars global chocolate manager of sustainability Andrew Pederson says: "We use a 'spoke and hub' method to reach thousands or tens of thousands of farmers at a time, with the goal being to build local capacity.
"We have established several cocoa development centres in Africa and Asia that cultivate and distribute cocoa trees bred to produce more cocoa and be more disease resistant. At these cocoa development centres our employees train a larger number of local staff and government officials who, in turn, train many more farmers.
"The cocoa development centres provide training and plant material for a larger number of farmer-owned village cocoa centres that can support themselves by selling plants and services to other farmers."
Mars depends heavily on agricultural systems around the world to provide the raw materials required to manufacture its products.
However, Pederson says: "Current cocoa farming practices are unsustainable, as they are projected to be unable to meet growing demand by 2020. By that year, we will consume one million more tonnes of cocoa than we do today.
"In our view, the foundation for long -term success is to increase productivity at source, which will drive higher incomes for the millions of cocoa farmers worldwide."
The initiative Mars has developed to achieve its twin goals of a growing harvest and rising farmer incomes is made up of three main elements.
Pederson says: "The first is technology transfer, or what we call 'putting farmers first'. This involves providing training, education, and planting material through cocoa development centres and village cocoa centres.
"The second is driving advances in cocoa science to help accelerate increased yields. We recently mapped and made public the cocoa genome and are constantly looking for ways to prevent disease and create more pest-resistant cocoa trees.
"And the third is certification. We work with Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified and Fairtrade International, which helps us verify the cocoa we use is produced in a way that both benefits farmers and respects the environment."
Certification is a key part of Mars' overall response to the sustainability challenge. In fact, global cocoa vice president Andy Harner believes it has an important role in the future of cocoa farming worldwide.
He says: "Certification has great potential to benefit hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cocoa farmers. However, to be truly meaningful, it must bring industry together to prioritise real change at the farm level, ahead of all other interests."
He also praises the input of the NGOs working with Mars to transform agricultural practices. Harner says: "We're truly grateful to our certification partners for sharing this vision and for the commitments they have made to putting cocoa farmers first."
Where most other crops have seen increases in yields over time, Mars - whose long-term business depends on a sustainable supply of high-quality cocoa - says cocoa farm yields have been flat compared with the huge increases seen for other crops such as corn.
Pederson says: "Annual cocoa production today is three million metric tonnes. By 2020, we need to increase our supply by the equivalent amount of another country producing as much cocoa as Cote d'Ivoire - the single largest producer - is exporting now.
"And we believe the surest way to address this is to pursue a strategy that increases yields across the smallholder cocoa farms worldwide."
Mars' sustainable cocoa initiative helps with the introduction of better land-use practices, effective use of pesticides, proper tools, and successful fertilisation, all of which have near immediate benefits for farmers.
Pederson says: "With improved training and better plants, farmers will produce more, higher quality cocoa and make a better living to provide for their families and reinvest in their farms.
"Farmers, industry and consumers all lose if there is a cocoa shortage, so we must work together to prevent this from happening."
Mars' initiative to increase production levels and the incomes of its agricultural suppliers provides an excellent example of the principles of sustainability put into action.
Rather than exhausting essential natural resources, the company's forethought and planning will allow the cocoa sector to grow in size without impacting negatively on farmer incomes or the environment.
Those for whom the prospect of a chocolate shortage is the stuff of nightmares, can sleep peacefully, safe in the knowledge the future of cocoa production is in safe hands.