The implementation of the standard regulating cadmium percentages in cocoa to be able to trade in European markets put producers and growers in Colombia to the test.
We spoke with Nicolás Gutiérrez, Project and Development Manager at Equiori, who tells us about his experience when he was still working as organizational development leader, at Fruandes, in 2019.
Before the regulation, what was the outlook for the cocoa industry?
At the Colombian level what we had perceived from the cocoa industry is that there was a lot of ignorance of the regulations, some diffusions had been made, the topic was being talked about by some actors but it was not of general knowledge and much less of the producers. Until the implementation of the regulations in 2019 and the regulation comes in. At that time, many of the actors that were producing cocoa at national and international level were not prepared and had not taken actions to understand the issue first of all and secondly to be able to correct it if possible.
What was the outlook before the regulation in 2019?
At that time I was working with Fruandes and we were developing an organic cocoa project in Urabá Antioqueño. From the commercial side we had detected that the restriction would impact us because our market was mainly European. This implied a problem.
We began to make inquiries about what cadmium was, why it was present and how it was present. However, there was very little information on the web: some research in Peru, which had made some progress on the subject.
We knew that Luker had been working on these issues since 2014, when the first communiqué on the change in legislation was published. They were working on it hermetically, very much at the organizational level. I remember that, in general, many other companies, let alone farmers, knew what was going on.
What did you find in that search?
We discovered that Colombia had quite important difficulties in the cadmium issue. Because of the contents already in the soil and because of the practices that were being used, mainly in the fertilization processes. Although we did not know how serious the problem was and there was no zoning in the country.
However, we were able to identify that there were some areas that did have a greater problem, such as the Santanderes. But we had not begun to mitigate the problem or understand it a little more in depth.
The first thing we started to work on in Fruandes was to understand what the cadmium content was in 3 important components and thus understand how cadmium mobility was in the plant. We did research on cadmium content in soil vs. in leaves vs. fruit, which were the places where we understood with the documentation and information we had where cadmium was stored or deposited.
What was the biggest challenge?
The first one was the laboratories. In Colombia they were not yet prepared to perform that type of analysis. So we had to find someone who could perform those analyses in a consistent, constant, regulated way and that we could obtain good results.
There were some entities such as Agrosavia, which was already a little advanced, but in the country they did not have much knowledge about the practices to be carried out for the analysis. Some laboratories working at international level were relying on their parent companies to carry out these analyses and to be able to have the appropriate methodologies for measurement. So it was a first big problem that we had to find, to identify a number of laboratories.
Was the lack of information the biggest challenge?
Yes, people did not know what was happening and how the problem was occurring. So the first thing was to quantify the problem. To understand at the final producer, who was the one that was being marketed, what was the problem that was occurring.
We made some very general samples at the national level and in the places where we were working at that time. We saw that our farmers were exceeding the maximum levels allowed by the European standard. There was a great alarm there, that was more or less between 2018 and 2019 that we entered in that process of transition of the standard. When we were going to commercialize through Fruandes, those processes were stopped due to the cadmium levels at that time.
This shows the lack of preparation that the Colombian industry had to face that situation: the regulation and the restrictions came and cocoa could not be marketed because of that primary difficulty. Despite the fact that a very important work and deployment had been done at a technical level to have organic cocoa, of good quality, at a sensory level.
In fact, the product had all aspects covered, but this was a link in the chain that had not been detected in time and we had not been proactive in this process.
The question that arose was how to market this cocoa.
The other problem we found was the high variation in cadmium content because the samples we sent, some were very high and others very low, and we found a very wide variation. So we understood that in principle cocoa is a raw material with high variation.
We were working with small producers, so we had very variable lots, both in terms of varieties and processing methods, in terms of agricultural work. From then on we had many problems and we did not understand why there was such a wide variation in cadmium content.
Supported by the Bancolombia Foundation, which supported the primary research process, we carried out a more accurate characterization of the farms: farm by farm, of each of the farmers making this analysis, between soil, leaf and fruit to understand how the mobility of cadmium was. Also, which were the geographical locations and which were the conditions that were affecting cadmium content the most.
We launched a second phase of the project and specialized in a single geographic area of development where we knew we had slightly lower levels of cadmium and a greater possibility of commercialization.
This knowledge by producer, by association, by geographic area and understanding the technical parameters with which each cocoa was grown allowed us to identify and begin to generate a series of strategies.
What did you do?
To take the problem to the field and show growers and farmers what was happening and talk to them about cadmium. There was a complete lack of knowledge about this element.
Many of the growers were used to selling in local markets. At first they saw it as another barrier to reach international markets. That was the first thing we started to work on. A lot of accompaniment, training, verifying what the problem was and what were the possible solutions and management for the future.
Organic agriculture has been very important because it allows us to completely eliminate the inclusion of some fertilizers that already contain cadmium. Likewise, phosphoric rocks or some other inputs that may have certain cadmium contents that are not even related in the technical data sheet because it is something that comes as an impurity but does not have a regulation.
In addition, from organic agriculture this has allowed the farmer to be much more aware of his crop and to be more concerned about sustainable practices, to look for fertilization systems that are positive for his own farm and that has led them to understand the problem more than to improve it because it is not easy from the agricultural point of view, but it is easy to have more conscious practices from his crop.
How far do you see the possibility of mitigation?
One sees that organizations such as Fedecacao are not even concerned about this problem. As the organization that brings together producers, it should be very concerned and leading research and alternatives for possible solutions.
From these public policy dynamics, we have not seen more work. In terms of research, Luker has designed cadmium mitigation processes. From the post-harvest phase, they are carrying out some operations to reduce these amounts of cadmium. That corresponds to a research of more than 4 years that Luker has been doing and they have it as something special of their company and it is not information that is easily shared. Let’s say that the rest of the producers or actors are still a little bit stuck in those processes.
From this experience, were there many considerable losses?
I know that the sales projections at that time could not be met. I do not know the national figures because I am in the field, however, the impact in 2019 was slight because the Colombian market is large and covers a large amount of cocoa.
The impact is being generated in new marketing trends, Colombia was postulating itself as one of the emerging countries. Several actors are planning an international marketing process and this has slowed down.
How do you work in Equiori?
Currently in Equiori (Equity and origin) we work from the knowledge acquired in the research with Fruandes and we have expanded the characterization and research with our own farmers in areas such as Urabá Antioqueño and in the departments of Huila and Tolima. This research has been expanded thanks to the technical and financial support of entities such as Swissplataform, Developp and SECO, among others.