The movement to certify cocoa has taken two steps forward in recent months. Consider these two stories:
1. Mars, which is the world's largest end-user buyer of cocoa, has promised to certify that all its cocoa will come from sustainable sources by 2020. Unfortunately, this article from the Financial Times does not tell us what a 'sustainable source' is, how it will be certified or why it will take over 10 years to complete the process. However, they do hint at the root of the problems of the cocoa sector: very low yields in West Africa, where two-thirds of the world's cocoa comes from. Mars seems to understand that since there is little primary forest left to cut down in Ghana or Côte d'Ivoire, the only way to increase cocoa production is to apply inputs to existing trees and replant them with higher-yielding varieties.
2. Cadbury, the UK's best-selling chocolate maker, has announced all its Dairy Milk bars will be certified 'Fair Trade' by the middle of 2009. The BBC reports this will mean tripling the volume of Fair Trade cocoa it buys from Ghana, to 15,000 tonnes. The more detailed press release points out that they are no longer relying just on Ghana's well-established 'Kuapa Kokoo' cooperative, but will help set up farmers' groups and cooperatives in other parts of the country.
Both Mars and Cadbury promise that chocolate prices won't rise, while promising higher farmgate prices for the cocoa growers. How can they do this without squeezing their profit margins? I can think of two ways. First, certified cocoa has been expensive in the past because it was a niche product. If certification becomes the standard, the economies of scale may make it cheaper to operate the tracing systems, audits and inspections required for certification. Two, Fair Trade (which Cadbury backs, but Mars doesn't) guarantees a minimum price to farmers, but when cocoa prices are as high as they are now, there is no difference between Fair Trade and the world market price. (There is a small 'bonus' for Fair Trade growers, but it's tiny and usually given to the cooperative for community projects, rather than individual farmers).
Will these schemes help cocoa farmers, then? I'd like to see more details of what Mars is planning, but there are some benefits. If certification works, it will make the supply chain more efficient and thus cut out some of the profits made by middlemen. If Fair Trade works, it will reduce the risk of a sudden crash in cocoa prices leaving farmers worse off. Neither of these schemes will do much to reduce poverty in cocoa-growing communities, however. To increase their income, they will need to raise productivity. Higher productivity will come from growing more and better cocoa on the same land, with higher-yielding trees and more inputs including fertiliser (sorry). You can do this through subsidised credit and government- or private-sector led replanting schemes; certification and higher prices alone will not be enough.