Mars, Inc., is committing to a 100% sustainable supply chain to meet its future cacao needs. The family-owned company has joined with agricultural analytics company Nature Source Improved Plants to more quickly develop new cacao varieties with greater yields, better disease resistance and higher quality, according to a NSIP release.
Mars' "Cocoa for Generations" strategy will help the CPG company show leadership in this effort. It also may inspire other partners to work on boosting farmer income, protecting children from hazardous labor conditions and preserving forests, the release said. This won't be easy since cacao is often competing for land with palm oil and rubber production, and better agricultural practices can't solve all of the problems, it added.
Worldwide cacao demand is projected to increase about 5% per year for the foreseeable future, NSIP said. Greater demand usually results in more acres being planted, but adding more cacao trees has also caused deforestation and environmental destruction, the company added.
Because of its well-known candy brands — including M&Ms, Snickers, Twix, Milky Way and Dove — Mars has an avid interest in maintaining a sustainable cacao supply. However, improving quality and yield through breeding takes many years and a lot of money before the investment will bear fruit, David Mackill, the company's director of genetics and breeding, noted in the release.
This is where NSIP comes in. The plant analytics firm uses new breeding technologies based on advanced genomics, which have enhanced productivity and quality in field, vegetable, perennial and orphan crops. At the same time, the company said this method limits research and development expenses. NSIP also said it develops in vitro propagation techniques to help growers producing perennial plantation crops such as cacao.
According to the European Commission, about 4 million tons of cocoa beans are needed annually to keep up with demand, which requires 500 million new plants each year. Given the rising market demand for cocoa and the production challenges — climate change, declining yields, aging farmers, volatile prices and crop diseases — better ways to produce plants are required. Consequently, micropropagation has become important to more quickly produce higher-quality plants with greater disease resistance.
This isn't Mars' first effort to enhance its cocoa supply. The company announced in September 2018 it would spend $1 billion over a decade to improve sustainability of the supply chain. At the time, John Ament, the company's global vice-president of cocoa, told Reuters the traditional cocoa supply chain is "broken" because it often does little to help local workers and prevent environmental degradation. The company pledged to responsibly source all of its cocoa by 2025.
Such promises from Big Food are common, but the success rate is not high. According to a Greenpeace report released last year, none of more than 50 CPG firms, retailers and producers had shown meaningful efforts to rid deforestation from their supply chains.
Still, the report recognized some chocolate makers — Nestlé, Lindt, Mars, Mondelez, Cargill and Barry Callebaut — had made progress. Cargill promoted good farming practices with its Cargill Cocoa Promise, Barry Callebaut achieved 44% sustainably sourced cocoa in 2018, and Hershey pledged a $500 million investment in West African cocoa sustainability, Greenpeace said.
Beyond the pledges and investments, some manufacturers using chocolate as an ingredient are upcycling parts of the cacao fruit to limit waste and boost revenue. Nestle announced last summer it had developed a new chocolate-making technique using only cacao fruit pulp and no added refined sugar for sweetening. And Barry Callebaut debuted snack products in September 2019 using cacao fruit parts usually thrown out.
Tangible results of more sustainable practices could attract the increasing numbers of consumers on the lookout for these qualities, and innovative chocolate makers are liable to reap the rewards when they do.