Certification of cocoa beans means that cocoa farmers’ compliance with set requirements, often economic, social or environmental rules, has been monitored.
Certification means firstly that some rules also known as standards are in place, and secondly that compliance with these rules is being monitored, giving the rules their ‘teeth’. Many of these rules and monitoring mechanisms are created in and reflect the logics of industrialized societies.
Certification in cocoa generally refers to voluntary sustainability standards. These are not compulsory food-safety standards, but voluntary standards covering social, economic or environmental aspects which cocoa farmers and other stakeholders have to satisfy.
Certified cocoa is estimated to constitute one quarter up to half of global production.
Farmers normally receive some financial and/or other benefits for compliance, though they vary by certifier. If certified chocolate is more expensive than conventional, non-certified chocolate, the price delta paid by consumers does not all go to farmers.
As supply of certified cocoa can exceed demand, some farmers and cooperatives have to sell certified cocoa uncertified and thus don’t receive certification benefits, despite incurring costs.
In cocoa, third-party certification, i. e. certification monitored by independent/civil-society organizations, used to be most common (Fairtrade, organic, Rainforest Alliance/UTZ, or a combination). However, in-house sustainability schemes with rules generally being devised and overseen by cocoa-chocolate companies have become more common recently.
Certification benefits & costs
Compliance with certification or other scheme requirements often involves benefits, but also extra efforts or costs for cocoa farmers and cooperatives.
The benefits can include higher cocoa prices and premiums to be spent collectively by farmers e. g. on social or economic projects locally. Through third-party certification schemes and the cooperatives or farmer associations which they require, farmers also can often access:
- inputs such as seedlings,
- agricultural services and training e. g. on pruning cocoa trees to improve yields,
- collective infrastructure e. g. for drying the cocoa beans and other post-harvest processes, or
- some finance or insurance schemes.
The costs encompass for example:
- documenting compliance, e. g. recording what inputs were applied to cocoa trees or a particular cocoa plantation on any given day
- training, e. g. on new social, economic or environmental requirements if standards are updated
- infrastructure, e. g. ways to store chemical inputs safely to comply with health-and-safety requirements, or
- extra labour, e. g. if certain inputs cannot be used under the standard and this requires more human effort to replace.
What rules do they require?
Different voluntary, third-party certification schemes, but also in-house schemes vary in terms of what social, economic or environmental rules they require.
There are three main voluntary, third-party sustainability standards in cocoa:
Fairtrade has strong socio-political roots aiming to promote farmer empowerment and income, but has increasingly incorporated also environmental aspects.
The Organic seal emphasizes protecting soils and ecosystems through prioritizing natural methods to e.g. manage pests in cocoa production.
Rainforest Alliance (Rainforest Alliance and UTZ used to be two separate standards, but have now been merged) has as its motto ‘People & nature’, focusing on forests, climate, human rights and livelihoods.
While Fairtrade used to be the main third-party certifier in cocoa, UTZ and now Rainforest Alliance certify by far the largest volumes. Double or even triple certification is common, to maximize selling opportunities for farmers. As indicated before, all farmers producing to these standards struggle with a lack of demand for certified cocoa, leading them to produce certified cocoa with all the costs involved, but not always being rewarded with the benefits of selling their produce certified.
The in-house sustainability schemes vary in terms of what they emphasize.
The wider market
Despite their hard work and unique expertise, many of the 5-6 million cocoa farmers worldwide still do not have a living income. Farmers are at a bargaining disadvantage, as they individually produce small quantities, but the cocoa-chocolate market overall is quite concentrated, with only a handful of chocolate manufacturers and a handful of cocoa-processing companies controlling considerable shares of the market.
Different initiatives have been undertaken to boost the price of cocoa, and the share of cocoa and chocolate sales that remain with cocoa farmers.
There is also a difference between companies which are committed to certified cocoa and long-term partnerships across 100% of their range (some are co-owned by cocoa farmers) and those that only certify a portion of it.
Farmers having their say
It varies enormously how much say farmers – i.e. the ones who do the expert work of growing cocoa, without whom the industry would not exist – have had in formulating certification or sustainability schemes’ rules, or how they are monitored (Fairtrade, for example, is 50% farmer/worker-owned).
Consequently, it has been questioned whether, as certification and in-house sustainability schemes are generally driven by demand and designed in industrialized countries, they perpetuate problematic impositions by rich countries on the Majority World.
For instance, there are questions whether some rules and monitoring mechanisms are not well-suited for the contexts in which they are applied, such as requiring documentation which can be a challenge in underserved and low-literacy contexts.
Similarly, certain biases are argued to be inherent in ideas of ‘standard-setting’ and ‘compliance’: they risk codifying a transactional relationship between farmers and buyers, and a dynamic in which some make the rules and others have to follow them. Monitoring is also only intermittent and quite costly.
A changing landscape
Among some cocoa third-party certification (Rainforest Alliance/UTZ and Fairtrade), a mass balance system has become common to maximize opportunities for farmers to sell cocoa as certified.
Tracing cocoa beans 100% from their origin to the end of the supply chain is challenging and costly, and in cocoa, it cannot always be fully guaranteed. Therefore, even if you buy a certified chocolate bar, not all the cocoa in it may be fully certified. However, if some conventional cocoa ends up in a certified bar, companies will compensate for that elsewhere in their operation, so that the overall ‘mass’ between conventional and certified cocoa is ‘in balance’ across their range.
In other words, for every gramme of cocoa you buy in a certified chocolate bar, the company will have purchased a certified gramme of cocoa.
In-house sustainability schemes have become more common in cocoa in recent years (e.g. Lindt & Sprüngli Farming Program, Mars Cocoa for Generations, Mondelēz Cocoa Life, Nestlé Cocoa Plan among chocolate makers, and Barry Callebaut Forever Chocolate or Cargill Cocoa Promise among cocoa processors).
Unlike third-party certification schemes which are devised and monitored by independent certification bodies, these schemes are predominantly driven by the companies, including their understandings of what rules should apply and what is ‘sustainability’ in economic, social or environmental terms.
An advantage of these new schemes is that they generally roll out some commitments to a higher proportion of the total cocoa farmers selling to a company.
In the third-party certification model, large-scale cocoa or chocolate companies are often only committed to sourcing a limited share of their cocoa supply from a certified source. This meant that a limited number of farmers benefited from the full range of third-party certification benefits.
These in-house schemes generally aim to provide some benefits to all or most of the farmers who grow the company’s cocoa supply.
There has been much debate about both the measurable benefits of different third-party certification schemes, and how farmers’ benefits from in-house schemes compare to benefits from third-party schemes. Many of the 5-6 million cocoa farmers worldwide still do not have a living income.
Próximamente versión en español
Entry added: June 20, 2023
Verified on: September 14, 2023
Judith Krauss, Lecturer in the Department of Politics/Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre, University of York, UK
Academic / university faculty
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