Sustainable Cocoa Farming

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacau) is the wonderful stuff chocolate is made from.It is the (sometimes fermented) dried and powdered seed of the fruit of the tree Theobroma Cacau.

In Ghana we grow a lot of it, and it has been a major industry here for more than a hundred years. The government gives a guaranteed fixed price to the farmers and all cocoa must be sold through the government – it is a major form of foreign exchange for Ghana. The problem is, like many big agricultural industries, the cocoa is increasingly being grown in monoculture plantations using new hybrid “high yielding” varieties.To achieve these high yields you need to use chemical fertilisers. The inevitable problems of pests, diseases and loss of soil fertility monoculture causes are being dealt with by the use of lots of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fungicides – all very bad for the health of the land, water and local people, and also an economic dead end for the farmers: all those chemicals are not cheap! Many chemicals that are banned elsewhere in the world are being sold and used here in Ghana.  Ultimately it is not sustainable and the ecosystems of the plantations will collapse leaving a desert.

History of Cocoa in Ghana

Taken from the paper “GENETIC IMPROVEMENT AND COCOA YIELDS IN GHANA” full version: here

“The cacao crop has a long history in Ghana.  In 1878, a trader named Tetteh Quarshie returned home from Fernando Póo (now Bioko in Equatorial Guinea) bringing with him cacao seeds of the highly uniform West African Amelonado variety which were planted in the Akwapim mountains of the of the Eastern Region of the Gold Coast (now Ghana).  Nearly a decade later, Governor Griffiths, then Governor of Ghana, effectively repeated Tetteh Quarshie’s introductions (Lockwood and Gyamfi, 1979), the trees being planted at the Botanic Gardens at Aburi.

There were further introductions to Aburi between 1900 and 1909 of Trinitarios from Jamaica, Trinidad and Venezuela.  The new industry grew rapidly across the country, and in 1910 Ghana became the world’s leading cocoa producer accounting for 30-40 percent of the global market (Bateman, 1990).

In the mid-forties it was estimated that over 90% of the trees in Ghana were of Amelonado type, the remainder being descendants of the Trinitario introductions.  Production levels Genetic improvement and cocoa yields in Ghana  3peaked in 1964, then declined for twenty years.  Recovery began in 1984, reversing almost all of the decline (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2002) [this was by using new hybrid varieties and chemical inputs].   Traditionally, Ghana’s cacao was grown with minimum purchased inputs (for example, Beckett, 1945), although it has long been recognized that soil nutrient reserves would become exhausted eventually (Charter, 1953).  Recently, Appiah, Sackey, OforiFrimpong and Afrifa (1997) argued that soil nutrient availability has indeed become limiting to cacao yields. “

So basically, what the mainstream agronomists are saying in the exract from the article given above, is that growing the cocoa in plantations has exhausted the soil, and that this means we should all use chemical fertiliser. But they are using the wrong system – a monoculture. The soil is exhausted because cocoa naturally grows in a forest ecosystem with other supporting associated  plants that maintain the soil fertility, and these are all missing in a conventional plantation. In particular cocoa needs the complex beneficial symbiotic fungal networks that live in the root systems of diverse polycultures and that can fix and deliver phosphorous and potassium. But the agronomists say the farmers should apply chemical fertiliser to keep the system going.

We are making Cocoa a key part of our permaculture projects.  In our nurseries we are growing a non-hybrid old African variety first introduced by Tetteh Quarshie that is disease resistant and does not need chemicals. We are giving out these seedlings and teaching people how to grow this cocoa in diverse permaculture agroforestry systems with nitrogen fixing trees and other beneficial plants so that the soil fertility is maintained and a good combined yield can be harvested of food and materials for the farmer, as well as cocoa for a cash crop. And they don’t need to spend a single cedhi on toxic chemicals.