Regional research project seeks to promote the development of cacao to continue competing in the European market

Proyecto de investigación regional busca impulsar desarrollo del cacao para seguir compitiendo en el mercado europeo

The final beneficiaries are small cacao producers and their families, with a focus on reducing their vulnerability to the impact of the new food safety regulation and climate change. (Photo: ©2017 CIAT/NeilPalmer)

The Latin American and Caribbean region (LAC) is the main producer of fine flavor cacao in the world. The contribution of LAC to the global production of cacao, currently 17%, has nearly doubled in the last decade, taking advantage of the growth of global and regional demand for cacao by consumers. Cacao buyers obtain part of their supply from LAC to diversify and ensure their supply, anticipating the growing demand for fine flavor cacao in the world market and the negative impacts of climate change, among other factors, in West Africa, where most of the conventional cacao is produced.

Cacao is mainly produced by small farmers with scant resources (1-5 hectares), such that its cultivation plays an important role in rural development. The national governments of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, supported by international development cooperation, actively promote cacao as a strategy for reducing poverty and drug-related conflict.

Nevertheless, a sustainable transformation of the cacao-growing sector in the Andean countries, which also reduces rural poverty and conflict in an effective way, requires that certain critical challenges be addressed: low productivity, climate change, and high levels of cadmium in the cacao beans.

The impact of the new food safety regulation for cadmium in cacao

A new food safety regulation of the European Union (EU), which strictly limits maximum levels of cadmium in cacao, came into effect in January 2019. According to this regulation, different maximum concentrations of cadmium apply for different cacao and chocolate products. Frequently, the levels of cadmium in cacao from the Andean countries exceed the cadmium concentrations that the buyers consider to be acceptable, although there is a considerable variation within those countries.

The new EU regulation strongly impacts on the countries’ cacao sectors, with worrying effects on the economic and social sphere of low-income producers, especially in rural zones affected by the production of illegal crops.

In order to provide information for production strategies and public policies, it is essential to have a good understanding of the spatial variation, sources, and bioavailability of cadmium in cacao production systems. Such information is urgently needed to focus on context-specific strategies to mitigate high cadmium levels, and to avoid expansion of cacao in areas facing high cadmium risks.

Likewise, there is an urgent demand for reliable and affordable solutions to reduce the cadmium contents in the beans through changes in the production systems, such as the use of cacao cultivars with low accumulation of cadmium or soil amendments that reduce the bioavailability and absorption of cadmium by the cacao trees.

Cadmium, a trace metal, is found naturally in the soil and in the ecosystem, and is of special concern for some cacao-producing areas of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The cacao trees absorb cadmium through their roots, and trace quantities find their way into the tissues of the trees and into the cacao beans. (Photo: ©2017CIAT/NeilPalmer)

The need for adaptation to climate change

Climate change is already negatively affecting the production of cacao and the stability of this production, due to longer and more intense periods of drought, greater and more prolonged incidence of pests and diseases, and more irregular rainfall. But similar to cadmium, there is large geographic variation.

The indiscriminate promotion of cacao production and technological packages without taking into account the current and future climate risks and without considering the need for appropriate climate adaptation strategies, can exacerbate the vulnerability of cacao producers.

Strategies for climate adaptation can include policies and practices that allow for diversification of production, for example, by means of well-adapted agroforestry systems, improvements in soil management or the use of cacao genotypes that are adapted to the climate risks, e.g. drought stress. The synergies between cadmium mitigation (through new varieties or use of soil amendments), productivity and climate resilience of cacao plantations (e.g. through management of shade trees), and farmer livelihoods have yet to be explored, and need to be taken into account in order to develop mitigation strategies that are relevant to the region.

 Clima-LoCa: when science partners with practice

This week a new multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research project was launched, financed by the initiative “Development Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture” (DeSIRA) of the European Commission and implemented by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and partners.

The Clima-LoCa project focuses on the mitigation of the impacts of the new food safety regulations for cadmium in cacao, and at the same time gives proper attention to the implications for productivity, climate resilience, and inclusion of small cacao farmers in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Co-development of technologies or scaling strategies that allow public and private sector actors in the cocoa value chain to sustainably adapt to new challenges requires enhancement of their capacities to innovate. Such innovation may be technological (e.g., soil amendments or varieties), organizational (e.g. post-harvest strategies such as blending) and institutional (new rules governing processes in the value chain and new policies).


“In order to develop solutions for these two problems that are affecting the cacao sector, it is very important to connect science to practice, the stakeholders of the cacao value chain, and the governments. That way we jointly design solutions that fit the reality of the producers, who are the ones who are going to implement them.”

Mirjam Pulleman

Scientist of the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, and one of the leaders of the Clima-LoCa project.

Lastly, there is a great need for knowledge sharing, interdisciplinary integration, and mobilization research in order to improve the impact of investments in science and technology. Given that the target countries share similar challenges and agro-ecological contexts, but have different institutions, there is much that can be gained by better regional coordination of research, exchange of data, and use of comparative research approaches.

 Clima-LoCa action plan

The project builds on the premise that agricultural innovations require the participation of diverse end-users in order to jointly develop practices and productive systems that are applicable to a given context, and are based on solid interdisciplinary science while creating a favorable environment for their adoption and expansion at scale. The activities that will be implemented in selected cacao-growing areas in the three countries will generate the following outputs, organized into 4 different work package:

The Clima-LoCa project is financed by the European Commission initiative “Development Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture” (DeSIRA) and led by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT:

Related articles:

An exhaustive review of the status of research on cadmium in cacao  was recently published by Bioversity International (available in English and Spanish).

The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) delivers research-based solutions that harness agricultural biodiversity and sustainably transform food systems to improve people’s lives. Alliance solutions address the global crises of malnutrition, climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. The Alliance is part of CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future.

Clima-LoCa is one of the initiatives in which the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT comes into action. Cacao was already a crop of interest for both Centers, with cacao research work being advanced separately by each for some time now. With Clima-LoCa, they come together to complement their experiences not only between Bioversity International and CIAT, but also among local partners for successful execution of this regional project.