New European regulations on cadmium in cocoa beans have increase the burden on African producers including Ghana, who say livelihoods will be lost unless they are given time to adapt.
Cocoa farmers across West Africa are worried for their livelihoods after the European Union (EU) announced plans to reject the import of cocoa beans containing certain levels of heavy metals. The measures are due to take effect by the end of April this year.
West Africa grows 75 percent of the world's 3.9 metric tons (tn) global supply of cocoa, with the bulk of the beans ending up in Europe. The EU move follows a January 2012 report into cadmium content in chocolate by the European Food Safety Authority Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain. It has recommended that cocoa imports containing more than 0.2mg/kg of cadmium be turned back.
"Of course, this is very unpleasant news. And the worst thing is that many of us are ignorant of cadmium and how to prevent it contaminating our plants," explains Alfred Effeti, a plantation owner in Muyuka in southwest Cameroon, the country's leading production hub.
Cadmium is a bluish-white metal used in the production of fertilisers, pesticides, batteries, plastics, glass and steel plating. Upon release into the environment, cadmium accumulates in the soil and water. Medical research has established that besides causing cancer, it provokes kidney failure, high blood pressure and bone and reproduction complications.
"The final consumers in Europe, America, Asia and even Africa are increasingly very sensitive about quality and safety these days," says Michael Ndoping, managing director of Cameroon's National Cocoa and Coffee Board, adding that, the decision may be hasty, but will ultimately push us to grow top-quality cocoa.
"Cadmium is a real concern. When we were informed, we conducted a quick survey, collecting cocoa beans and soil samples from some growing regions of Cameroon," Ndoping explains.
He continued: "Preliminary tests show we are below the limits being fixed by the EU regulations, but that doesn't mean we're free. Further tests are needed to be certain."
West Africa's small-scale farmers have quality problems because some dry cocoa beans on tarmac roads or in smoky ovens, while others use improper fermentation techniques.
In December 2012, Cameroon's Association Nationale des Producteurs de Cacao et de Café reported that a 2,000tn consignment of cocoa was turned back by European ports owing to quality shortfalls. Sanitary inspectors found the beans had a smoky smell and contained high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – also banned by the EU under new regulations introduced on 1 January.
Cameroonian authorities are cracking down on sub-standard processing practices, confiscating beans dried on tarred roads and organising cadmium-awareness workshops. There are also plans to construct and rehabilitate drying ovens in the south-west.
Elsewhere in West Africa, producing countries are demanding a five-year delay to the EU measures to enable them to adjust and protect the livelihoods of an estimated 100,000 farmers. In September, the EU announced it would study the moratorium request. According to Malachy Akoroda, director of Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, Europe is partly to blame.
“The climate change they've caused is affecting the quality of our cocoa. Now they're talking about cadmium. Who brings cadmium? Is it in the chemicals they bring for us to spray? Does the European buyer care about our efforts to correct the flaws? They say they want this quality, they want that quality. At what price? Better quality commands better price," he asks.
Buyers say West Africa's cocoa farmers have compromised on quality to rush for alluring prices.
"It's a serious problem," says Ed Seguine, a chocolate research fellow at Mars Chocolate.
"Farmers have been put under pressure both economically and environmentally. With the ageing of the cocoa trees, quality has declined. Rejection rates for African cocoa are at an all-time high in Europe and the US."
Officials from the Alliance of Cocoa Producing Countries say they are banking on ongoing research to fight soil degradation, programmes to replace ageing plants with improved varieties and campaigns to educate farmers on best practice.