ADdressing sustainability in cocoa farming
One million smallholder farmers in Indonesia rely on cocoa farming to make a living. But it’s a precarious existence and crop failure is an ever-present threat in our increasingly unpredictable climate.
Research led by food scientist Professor Dimitris Charalampopoulos at Reading aims to address some of the sustainability problems with cocoa production. The work has shown that cocoa husks – the bright orange outer layer of the pod that’s left once the beans have been harvested – could generate a new source of income for subsistence farmers. Not only that, but products derived from the husks could help improve people’s health and reduce our reliance on petrochemicals.
Cocoa pod husks contain soluble fibre which could be introduced to products such as chocolate, cakes or even ice cream to reduce their fat and sugar content and add dietary fibre. One part of the research showed that such fibre could successfully be incorporated into muffins as a substitute for wheat flour.
What’s more, the non-soluble fibre in the husks, including a substance called lignin – the strengthening "glue" within plant stems – could be used to make chemical "feedstocks"; the raw materials needed to produce industrial chemicals or plastics.
Exploitation of the husks in these ways would both upskill farmers and provide them with a reliable second form of income, where they would be paid for husk collection, processing, drying and delivery.
Two large choice-modelling studies undertaken by the team suggested that farmers’ willingness to take part is strongly influenced by the level of compensation they would get for collecting, processing and delivering the cocoa pod husks to collection points.
Findings from an agronomic trial carried out by the team also concluded that cocoa pod husks make little difference to maintaining levels of soil phosphorus, calcium and magnesium, but they play an important role in providing potassium to crops. Removing the husks would reduce soil carbon and nitrogen by about 16% and 20%, respectively, so the findings suggest that changes to current farming practices should consider the long-term effects on soil quality, especially as it might create increased reliance on mineral fertilizers.
The research was funded by UKRI and carried out in partnership with the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute (ICCRI) and Mars Inc, with whom Professor Charalampopoulos and team are in discussions to take the project forward.