Chocolate is a delight and rare is the person who does not love to consume it from time to time. However, the industry that produces it has been causing serious damage to the environment, especially through large-scale deforestation in the tropical belt.
Large areas of forest have been cleared to make way for cocoa plantations and the demand for chocolate and other cocoa products continues to increase. The world market for cocoa beans was estimated at around $ 10 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow in the next few years. Meanwhile, the global chocolate market is forecast to reach $ 140 billion by 2024.
However, it turns out that farmers may have been growing the cocoa beans poorly. According to a new study, growing cocoa beans under the canopy of various trees left intact in plantations not only increases yield, it can also increase the trees' carbon storage capacity, which can help us in our fight. against climate change.
Chocolate is made from cacao, which is produced by a tropical tree that grows in areas where temperatures range from 20 ° C to 35 ° C. Cacao trees produce large pods with beans inside. The beans are collected, fermented, roasted, and ground before being sent to further processing to make chocolate.
Many farmers prefer to grow beans in direct sunlight to increase their yields. These farmers cut down other trees and their canopies so as not to compete with their cocoa trees for nutrients and sunlight. This traditional practice requires a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which degrades the quality of the soil over time.
However, in places like the Brazilian Amazon, many cacao trees are grown under the canopy of various trees, which helps protect cacao plants from exposure to too much sun. The practice can also improve environmental conditions in these areas and improve the organic matter content of the soil.
Although cocoa grown in the sun can produce higher short-term yields, the researchers behind the study have found that cocoa plants grown in the shade of trees produce the same yields at the end.
"While several studies found a decrease, others did not report any negative effect of the shade tree on yield," the study authors reported.
“Clearly, the species identity of the shade trees, the intensity of the shading and the cacao planting density are influencing the results of the agroforestry system comparisons,” they explain. "However, our data seem to indicate that shading does not impede cocoa productivity and yield in any significant way."
The practice of producing cocoa in the shade has a clear benefit for the planet: trees retain much more carbon storage capacity that can help mitigate global warming. If various canopy trees are allowed to flourish in cocoa growing areas, a larger biomass remains in place to store carbon both above and below ground.
Shade cultivation is not a radically new practice. It is already an established practice with coffee plants, which do not like to be in direct sunlight. This is especially true of the more sensitive Arabica plants, which tend to thrive at higher elevations in the tropics.
“Although system-wide carbon fixation is much lower in diverse cocoa agroforestry than in primary forests, it is nevertheless higher than in perennial monocultures or annual crops,” the study authors write.
"The huge contribution of shade trees to biomass, carbon storage and annual carbon sequestration, both above ground and underground, emphasizes the importance of the role of shade trees in the sagro-forest ecosystems in our study," they add.
The researchers suggest that cocoa farmers should be supported to move to shade farming. The increased carbon storage will not be the only benefit. A cocoa monoculture in which other trees have been cut down leads to soil degradation. It also makes cacao trees more susceptible to drought and disease.