Cacao harvest in one of the organic agroforestry systems studied as part of the long-term trial.
Photo: ©Johanna Rüegg, FiBL

What does a sustainable cacao farming system look like?

Our authors take a look at different cacao farming systems. They explore what sustainable cacao farming can look like and explain why agroforestry systems play a crucial role.

In the tropics, agricultural yields can be low. Many soils in these areas are very old, and until recently farmers had little access to fertilisers. ‘Organic farming’ – which in this case means production without external inputs such as fertilisers – is often the standard form of farming used in traditional systems in the tropics. In recent decades, however, the availability of fertilisers and pesticides, even in remote regions, has increased considerably. They offer the potential to boost yields. But the direct and indirect costs for the environment and for society of this kind of production are often high. Organic farming, on the other hand, is known to increase soil fertility – and, therefore, also yields. There has not been a great deal of research into the sustainability of organic and conventional agriculture in the tropics over the long term.

Since 2008, the SysCom Bolivia project has been researching different cacao farming systems. The project brings together scientists from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Ecotop, the Institute of Ecology at the Higher University of San Andrés in La Paz and the PIAF-El Ceibo Foundation. The research team compares both organic and conventional agriculture, as well as cacao cultivation in agroforestry systems and cacao cultivation in monocultures.

The findings in Bolivia show that just using organic methods is not enough to ensure ecologically and socially sustainable farming systems. Agroforestry systems are much better suited to the task. Financial success is similar across all systems studied over the first 13 years. Organic farming involves more labour than conventional farming, just as agroforestry systems require more labour than monocultures. However, the lower costs for fertilisers and pesticides and the higher prices of organic products compensate for this. 

Agroforestry systems have a long tradition in the tropics and make a significant contribution to the subsistence of the population. They involve cultivating a combination of annual and perennial crops. Often traditional systems take the form of ‘forest gardens’, which can encompass permanent commercial crops such as coffee or cacao.

Multi-layered systems are more environmentally sustainable

In recent years, farmers and researchers around the world have clearly shown the benefits of the agroforestry systems, including in the tropics. In Bolivia, the findings show that the more complex the spatial structures of cropping systems are, the greater the diversity of birds that make their habitat there. The absence of artificial fertilisers and herbicides in organic systems also greatly reduces the negative environmental impacts compared to conventional systems. Agroforestry systems are also important tools in combatting climate change. They sequester up to three times more carbon in their biomass than monocultures. At the same time, they mitigate the negative effects of temperature peaks, heavy rainfall events and drought.

Organic farming and agroforestry for a strong social network

Studies in the Alto Beni project region show the potential of organic agriculture for social sustainability. Smallholder farmers in the tropics usually organise themselves into groups to share the cost of certification. In the case of El Ceibo, a strong producer organisation, it also brings many other advantages. Members earn higher prices because the organisation itself processes the cacao bean into chocolate. El Ceibo also organizes training. The farms become more resilient thanks to the knowledge they acquire, the social network they form, and the increased security that they will be able to sell their produce. Agroforestry systems are an additional means of increasing resilience, i.e. the ability to cope with, for example, changing climate conditions or fluctuating prices and costs. In addition, working conditions in agroforestry systems put less of a strain on farmers as they can work in the shade rather than in the blazing sun of monocultures.

Productivity and financial sustainability

The long-term trial in Bolivia shows that cacao yields in well-managed, mature organic monocultures are only about ten per cent lower than in conventional ones. There is no difference in yields between organic and conventional agroforestry systems. In contrast, cacao yields in agroforestry systems are about 40 per cent lower than in monocultures. Nevertheless, cacao yields in all the systems studied are significantly higher than those of many farmers in the region and can be increased by 40 to 60 per cent by choosing locally adapted varieties over imported international ones.

However, when total production in an area is taken into account and not just the cacao yield, agroforestry systems are much more productive. Total yields are three to four times higher in these systems than in monocultures when the dry matter of the entire crop including bananas, coffee, corn, cassava, ginger, fruits, etc. is factored in. By diversifying their crops, farmers can make their yields and income more secure, which contributes to food sovereignty in the producer regions. Many of the small farmers, for example, supply their families living in the city with the produce from their plots. In the dynamic agroforestry systems, from the very first year they harvest a large variety of crops, including cassava, maize and pineapple. To achieve this, cacao producers use the spaces between the young trees until they reach full yield – a common practice worldwide.

Diversification also means extra work, however; in particular, farmers have to know about the many different crops and how best to bring them to market. But the data in Bolivia show that the prices the farmers can command on local markets compensate for the additional work involved in agroforestry systems. Because every smallholding operates in a different context, it is important to consider the evolution of local and international markets for crops when establishing an agroforestry system.

In Bolivia, the price of cacao is relatively high and stable, so it makes a significant contribution to income compared to other crops. About 50 per cent of income in mature agroforestry systems comes from cacao sales. The remaining revenue comes from the companion crops.

The challenges of growing organic cacao in agroforestry systems

The main challenges experienced in producing organic cocoa are the high labour demands in terms of mechanical weed control and compost production. In regions with low animal density, it is difficult to obtain farmyard manure for compost production and the distances involved in transporting it can be significant. The same is also true for mineral fertiliser, even though it is often distributed by government programmes. This is why the nitrogen-fixing shade trees in agroforestry systems are so valuable and need regularly pruning. Pruning is also very important for cacao yields, but it involves a lot of labour and additional trained workers and safety equipment.

A study on smallholder farms shows that the higher cacao yield only covers the additional costs incurred if yields are already high. The results of the trial show that the production of additional food increases revenues from agroforestry systems. However, bringing the goods to market is challenging and prices can vary considerably depending on location.

Decision-makers in the cacao sector, as well as policymakers, should support producers in this sustainable mode of production, with better producer prices, payments for ecosystem services, training, marketing of by-products, supply of planting materials and professional pruning.

Johanna Rüegg, Marc Cotter and David Bautze, FiBL Switzerland, Department of International Cooperation

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