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Cocoa pods on the tree
Cocoa pods on the tree. Image credit: bedo / iStock

Cargill & AeroFarms talk indoor cocoa production

September 6, 2021

“Cocoa demand will continue to grow. Yields will have to go up. Obviously, weather patterns are changing, and so you have more erratic rainfall, maybe longer droughts. What can we do?”

Niels Boetje, managing director at Cargill Cocoa Europe, is highlighting one of the ways the commodities company is approaching supply challenges in the cocoa industry in the wake of climate change and growing consumer demand.

We will have to see how we can do that by really targeted trials,” he adds, referencing the partnership Cargill just struck with vertical farming company AeroFarms.

The pair have joined forces to grow cocoa trees in fully controlled indoor environments using a mix of plant biology, horticulture techniques, data analytics, automation, and other technologies. The multi-year research initiative will combine Cargill’s knowledge of cocoa production and agronomy with AeroFarms’ technical expertise and resources in controlled environment agriculture (CEA). The end goals are to get higher yields on cocoa and a more resilient production system overall.

‘Specific knowledge’

The Cargill-AeroFarms partnership will identify optimal growing conditions for cocoa trees in environments outside the traditional growing regions of West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the tropical Americas. Together, the two companies will experiment with a range of indoor growing technologies with the aim of achieving faster tree growth overall, greater yields, and the development of new varieties that unlock more flavor and are more resistant to disease and pests.

Boetje tells AFN that Cargill screened numerous prospective partners in the CEA space and wound up choosing AeroFarms because of its “specific knowledge” around the technology it has deployed.

AeroFarms’ indoor grow facility in Newark, New Jersey is powered by a proprietary tech system that uses a mix of custom lighting, automated nutrient delivery, precision aeroponics, and a growing library of datasets to monitor and manage plant growth. The company, which struck a SPAC merger deal to go public earlier this year, will bring these and other technologies to the Cargill partnership.

Climate challenges

Besides well-documented issues of deforestation and child labor, many of the problems cocoa production faces have to do with the impacts of climate change. Roughly 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown in just four West African nations, with additional growing in Southeast Asia and the Americas. In many of these places, climate change is raising temperatures and causing drought – which is potentially catastrophic not just for the cocoa tree, but also for the livelihoods of the 6.5 million or so smallholder farmers around the world growing it.

Many of these farmers are ill-equipped to deal with pests, disease, and other threats to cocoa tree growth. It’s estimated that around 30% of cocoa crops worldwide are lost to disease each year. Rising temperatures and varying rainfall levels will only amplify this problem.

Boetje says that growing cocoa plants in a controlled environment like those built by AeroFarms could lead to insights that Cargill is then able to take back to smallholder farmers to help them improve productivity and yields, and fight disease and pests. CEA could also lead to more disease-resistant plant varieties or even differently shaped trees that can fit into unconventional growing environments, whether indoors or in the field.

“If what we learn here we can also bring back to the smallholder farmer, I think that will also help us to build a more and more sustainable, resilient cocoa supply chain,” Boetje says. “In the end, every player in the cocoa space needs that.”

Unlocking the value of indoor cocoa

For AeroFarms, the major challenge will be figuring out how to cultivate a tree crop indoors. It’ll look vastly different from the neatly stacked trays of leafy greens currently growing at the company’s New Jersey facility, says Aerofarms CEO David Rosenberg.

He tells AFN that understanding how to grow cocoa trees indoors begins with the same set of questions AeroFarms has for any crop it tackles. (For the record, he says the company has experimented with growing over 550 varieties of plants.)

The first thing to figure out is the optimal state for the plant in terms of its taste, texture, nutrient density, color, and shelf life. From there, AeroFarms determines what the plant needs in terms of light, water, nutrients, and other inputs in order to reach that optimal state. The final question is around how to deliver those inputs in the most efficient, cost-effective way.

On top of all that, these elements can differ based on the age of a plant, too. For cocoa, the above elements may be applied in different ways when it comes to a baby plant versus one that is more mature.

“Agility is one of our key cultural attributes because what we think is best for a plant one day may change the next,” Rosenberg says. “We might have a discovery and decide to do things differently. [So we] build it up and take it down, and try it again and again and again.”

Like Boetje, he believes one of the most important aspects of the partnership with Cargill will be the learnings the companies can take back to the field to help farmers improve production. The entire operation is not exclusively about what AeroFarms can do in an indoor facility, he says.

“It’s about adding value to the industry. If we can add value, then more often than not we can find a way to monetize and make money.”

Initial exploratory work for the partnership has already started at AeroFarms’ facility in New Jersey. It will later move to the company’s new AgX Research & Development facility in Abu Dhabi, UAE, which is slated to open next year.

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