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Mars Sets Goal for Sustainable Cocoa Sources

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009

McLean candy giant Mars said yesterday that all its chocolate products will be made from sustainable sources by 2020, and it will begin with a popular candy bar sold in Britain.

That means it will buy cocoa from suppliers who meet certain environmental, labor and production standards. The company said the move is intended to help secure a steady supply of a crop whose production is often threatened by harsh weather in West Africa and whose price is volatile.

The announcement is also likely intended to appeal to socially conscious consumers in Europe, said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior analyst with Mintel, a market research firm. Mars said yesterday that it will begin its campaign by ensuring that Galaxy chocolate bars sold in Britain and Ireland carry a certified-sustainable seal from the nonprofit group Rainforest Alliance in New York.

Although the initiative will cost tens of millions of dollars over the next decade, a Mars spokeswoman said the company does not intend to charge more for its candy.

The move follows an announcement last month by competitor Cadbury that it will carry a seal from the Fairtrade Foundation for its Dairy Milk chocolate bar by the end of the summer.

"Fair trade is a much hotter topic in Britain than it is here," Mogelonsky said. "It's been a big issue there for a while."

The announcement is also the latest step in Mars's efforts to secure a steady supply of cocoa. Last year, Mars began work on a five-year, $10 million project to map the entire cocoa genome with the aim of developing trees that can better survive drought and disease.

"It is the appropriate choice for a stable, high-quality cocoa supply in the future," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director of plant science for Mars. "We think that this is what we are supposed to do as a responsible world citizen."

Mars said its partnership with the Rainforest Alliance aims to improve the yield of the crops and to ensure that the practices of farmers do not damage the environment.

Cocoa is farmed on more than 18 million acres of tropical land and can be cultivated under the shade of native canopy trees. Without training, though, farmers cannot sustain strong yields, said Chris Wille, chief of sustainable agriculture for the Rainforest Alliance.

"The chocolate industry, like the coffee sector, is quickly waking up to the fact that they need to address their supply chain all the way back to the farmers," he said, "because if not, they may not have all the raw ingredients . . . they need."

Unlike many crops, cocoa is produced on relatively small plots of land of about four to six acres. The International Cocoa Organization estimates that about 90 percent of the global cocoa production comes from about 3 million such small farmers. About 70 percent of cocoa comes from West Africa; particularly in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.

"The farmers are poor and so they are subject to prices fluctuating, the weather is unpredictable, the soil is degrading, the plantations are old," Wille said.

Some do not think the moves go far enough.

"We applaud what Mars is doing, and we hope the company isn't done," Paul Rice, chief executive of TransFair USA, said in a statement. "While sustainable farm practices are very important, going forward, we hope Mars will also take a look at ensuring cocoa farmer protection and make a goal of providing a better future for farmers by ensuring that they receive fair wages."

Rice's group certifies fair trade products in the United States. "Cocoa farmers face notoriously harsh conditions, with child labor an unfortunate reality," he said. "Fair trade certified provides strong protections for farmers as well as fair prices for their crops."

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