What has happened in these years? Read the conversation we had with Alexander Roncancio, who started working at Casa Luker on the technical side as a professional and today is in charge of all the company’s cocoa purchases.
He has had the opportunity to interact with many of the farmers who support his bet and, from a commercial point of view, to understand the process throughout the supply chain
Before the approval of the regulation, how familiar were you with cadmium?
Since 2004, the company began to do sampling, a map of cadmium recognition in the soil, in the cocoa-growing areas of Colombia. In fact, it was an experience that I lived very closely. When I first joined the company, one of my first tasks was to participate in this project in various parts of the country.
In 2006, an agreement was signed with CENICAFE to strengthen the initiatives and continue with the recognition and mapping of this metal. From then on, activities were carried out to develop mitigation strategies at the agricultural, industrial and laboratory levels.
Research alliances were also established with CorpoIca and Agrosavia. So the company, for more than 20 years, has been preparing for the laws we all know today.
In what other ways have you prepared?
Since 2004 we started working with the associations that the company had. At that time, they were not as representative as they are now. However, as they grew, the number of samplings increased and the characterization map expanded. At the same time we worked on traceability issues.
What have been the strengths?
We started, little by little, to work with some associations and today almost all of them are practically moving forward with cadmium traceability issues. In addition, all our warehouses are already implementing the system of purchasing cocoa by origin and cadmium levels. This was only achieved by working collaboratively with them.
Getting everyone to understand the relevance of cadmium has been a work of years because there was not much talk about it as there is now. Since that time, the most pertinent thing has been to approach the subject honestly and talk about it without generating alarms. The objective is to indicate to the associations and groups we work with the importance of the subject and how to approach it.
In the different areas of the company, we already have a clear idea of where to go and the magnitude of the restriction for our exports. So we started to form an interdisciplinary work team to take into account all the variables. From the supply point of view, how to make the purchase, how to segment and trace it. From the research and development point of view, how to reach the levels allowed by European legislation at the time.
What was the biggest impact or socio-economic effect?
At the beginning there was some fear, especially in those areas where it has been said that cadmium is at levels well above the permitted levels. Then there are cocoa-growing areas that had some important alarms where national research agencies have been more fully involved to review mitigation strategies.
From the point of view of the purchase of the national harvest, the industry still generally absorbs all the cocoa production, including in those areas where there is cocoa with high cadmium. The traceability work that each of the companies has allows them to go a little further and say “we are going to make some localized purchases focused on this area and others not”. In this we must be very clear and transparent, the producers know it.
Which zones are you referring to?
Farmers in Huila, Tumaco, in some areas of Caldas and Antioquia know that they have low cadmium content; as well as those in Arauca, Santander and Boyacá know that the soils have high cadmium content.
Generally speaking, farmers have the issue on their radar and producer associations, but they count a lot on the development of strategies from the government, research entities and industry.
What about those who are exploring ways out of cadmium?
We are making an evaluation of the technical feasibility of all the combined processes. Starting from the post-harvest technology of cocoa beans, mitigation strategies in the fermentation process, in agricultural/agronomic issues we have done some work. Always keeping the cost vs. benefit ratio.
We seek that the research work for mitigation and reduction of cadmium does not become larger than the unit price of a kilo of cocoa. We have also set some goals in this regard and that is to be clear about how far we can go so that these mitigation strategies do not affect profit margins in the business. In fact, it has been a work in progress.
We cannot draw definitive conclusions yet. There are some advances that indicate very positive things that take time to become national and together with other research organizations we could not yet say: “this can work” or “this can be massive for farmers or industries”.
We have given basic recommendations such as the use of fertilizers with very low or zero cadmium content in applications. This is a promotion campaign that we have been carrying out for several years.
From the point of view of technology applied at post-harvest level, at production plant level, even at molecular level, in the studies that have been done on nanotechnology, we still cannot bring to light the results of the work until we have very clear conclusions of the studies.
What can you say to producers and growers who are betting on cocoa?
We are all focused on sustainable growth policies and, in the case of soils and heavy metals, our advice has always been to work hard on the issue. We must try to ensure that our soils retain their natural characteristics. Even looking towards organic and regenerative agriculture, the cadmium content applied in chemical fertilizers should not be high, and when buying fertilizers, this concept should be clear to them.
From the post-harvest processes there are options that can be implemented in the different farms. Once we have more light and clarity, we are going to extend them to the growers’ and producers’ organizations so that they understand that this is going to be an opportunity: restrictions will continue to exist and in some places they will be more demanding. Regarding the issue of cadmium and heavy metals, we are already going to start hearing about them becoming restrictive for our exports.
The message should always be positive for farmers. We have identified a restriction but we also have some opportunities for improvement with the research teams that are being done.
How do you encourage those who have seen their pockets and projections hit?
I remain a true believer in cocoa. The company has a very clear vision where there is a profitable opportunity to continue to grow. Cocoa continues to be an agricultural opportunity.
We have to think about agroforestry systems that allow diversifying the farmers’ income and, from a technical point of view, it is also for us the only way for the business to be sustainable. We are going to have good years and bad years, but cocoa is a long-term crop and the horizon for planting cocoa is very long.
Can we say that Colombia is one of the great exporters?
In quality, we are great exporters of cocoa and aroma. In volume, we are very small compared to those big producers like the Africans. Even Ecuador and Brazil. However, we are still very important in terms of quality.