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The telecoupled sustainability impacts of global agricultural value chains: Assessing the cross-scale sustainability impacts of the cocoa sector

  • 13 February, 2024
  • VU University Amsterdam, Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM)
  • Peter H. Verburg
  • Patrick Meyfroidt

Agriculture is a major contributor to the global environmental crisis. Natural ecosystems are being replaced by agricultural land, which leads to the extinction of species and the release of tons of carbon emissions. Global agricultural value chains (GVCs) have grown due to the intensification of international trade. While GVCs have undeniably created economic opportunities for the agriculture sector, they have also led to the escalation of local environmental issues. Several initiatives have been implemented to reduce the negative impacts of agriculture, including government regulations, sustainability certification labels, and voluntary sustainability commitments. However, the effectiveness of these initiatives has been questioned due to several reasons, including the mismatches between the scale of the problem and the solution, the lack of monitoring and verification of sustainability actions, and their weak enforcement. Sustainability initiatives are informed by studies assessing the impacts of agriculture that often only focus on local impacts, while disregarding larger-scale – telecoupled– dynamics that can trigger impacts across geographic and temporal scales. This thesis aims to help bridge these knowledge gaps by examining the impacts of agricultural GVCs across scales, studying the role of GVC’s configuration in modulating these impacts and investigating the role of GVC actors in mitigating sustainability risks across scales. The global cocoa value chain is used as a case study. Chapter 2 examines various impact assessment methods and their ability to capture the effects caused by telecoupled dynamics across different scales. The study concludes that no single method is sufficient to capture all telecoupled cross-scale dynamics and that the integration of different methods is necessary to bridge gaps between methods and complement their scope. Chapter 3 implements the recommendations outlined in Chapter 2 by analyzing the impacts caused by cocoa agroforestry and cocoa full-sun production in Ghana. Impacts on carbon, biodiversity stocks, and environmental pollution were analyzed within and beyond the farm-level. This chapter reveals that findings drawn from farm-level assessments can contradict those from landscape-level assessments. Decision-makers focused should be wary of extrapolating farm-level assessment results to larger scales. Chapter 4 expands the scope to the global scale by examining the role of the cocoa GVC configuration on the capacity of the sector to address sustainability challenges across scales. The chapter identifies different types of cocoa traders, their market dominance, and sustainability commitments. The chapter highlights that to address the telecoupled impacts of the cocoa GVC, coordinated action between traders is required, along with government interventions to balance power asymmetries. Chapter 5 measured the degree to which cocoa traders, as identified in Chapter 4, are exposed to deforestation and climate change. This chapter highlights that sustainability challenges in agricultural value chains cannot be resolved in isolation as farming systems are constantly interacting with other farming systems and land competing sectors. To avoid displacing negative impacts across scales, it is necessary to have a coordinated and collaborative effort from stakeholders and sectors involved in making decisions related to land use. This thesis shows that addressing the telecoupled impacts caused by agricultural value chains needs a good understanding of the cause-effect dynamics at play. This requires the quantification of impacts caused by agriculture across scales and the characterization of the GVC network of actors modulating these impacts. Interdisciplinary methods need to be leveraged and integrated to generate actionable insights. The findings of this thesis can assist decision-makers and private actors in devising customized sustainability strategies, prioritizing action, and addressing the most vulnerable hotspots while being mindful of global teleconnections and avoiding spillovers.


Claudia Parra Paitan

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