A long-term study in Bolivia comparing different cacao production systems shows that in addition to enhancing biodiversity as well as farmers’ food security and nutrition, agroforestry systems and organic management may also be more profitable than full-sun monocultures and conventional management in young cacao plantations.

The study was carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in cooperation with partners in Bolivia.

More than 300’000 hectares of organic cacao are grown worldwide, over 60 percent in Latin America. The total cultivated area has grown by about 20 %, reaching up to 10 million hectares today. In the process, traditional agroforestry systems have been replaced by monocultures. It is well known that this leads to a drastic loss of biodiversity. “However, little is known about the economic differences between the different production systems”, Laura Armengot, co-author of the long-term study, states. “Our recent publication now sheds light on this issue.”

The study assessed the productivity and return on labour, that is, the income per working day, of four different cacao production systems in a long-term trial in Bolivia during the first five years after the establishment. Full-sun monocultures, where only cacao trees are grown, and agroforestry systems, where cacao trees are intercropped with shade trees and other by-crops such as bananas or plantains, were compared under both organic and conventional management.

According to the FiBL, return on labour across the years was roughly twice as high in the agroforestry systems compared to the monocultures, even though agroforestry systems were more labour-intensive than monocultures due to the time required to manage the shade trees and even though the yields of cacao were about 40 % higher in the monocultures. This is due to the revenues derived from the sales of banana and plantains, which economically compensate the lower cacao yields. This is important because farmers’ adoption of more sustainable production systems such as agroforestry and organic farming will largely depend on their economic feasibility.

Comparing organic and conventional management, cacao yields and return on labour were similar under both management types in the agroforestry systems, but in the monocultures, cacao yields were nearly 50 % lower under organic farming. However, the return on labour was similar for both systems. This was mainly due to the lower cost for inputs under the organic management. This might have a strong implication for smallholder farmers, who usually have limited savings and lack access to credit. In addition, organic management was not more labour intensive than conventional management.

Picture: The long-term trial in Bolivia: Agroforestry on the left, monoculture on the right (Photo: FiBL, Ivan Chita)