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June 2021 - Introducing the Sustainable Cacao and Coffee discussion group

Written by Wietse Wiersma
Edited by Hannington Bukomeko

The importance of cacao and coffee in society can hardly be overstated. Caffeine in coffee is the World’s number one drug. Cacao is known as the food of the gods. As globalized commodities, understanding the value chains of both crops is complex. Yet only by merging perspectives can we create sustainable production systems. Our discussion group aims to “explore the width of scientific research to create sustainable cacao and coffee value chains from beans to beverage.” This story is about what we do.

We are a group of early career scientists from Wageningen University & Research and beyond, breaking our own bubbles. As scientists, it is like we are always following rivers upstream, encountering tributaries, trying to find sources that feed the ocean of knowledge. We think of our own exploration as crucial, but really, it is only a small part of a solution awaiting discovery. With our discussion group, we try to understand how our sole tributary flows into larger streams to enable Sustainable Cacao & Coffee futures.

Cacao and coffee are tropical crops. They intricately connect with world history and have great social, cultural and spiritual significance that pre-dates globalized value chains. Nowadays, beans produced in Ghana are, more often than not, consumed as chocolate in Germany. From the farm to the table challenges abound that threaten the sustainability of the chain. Researchers are one of the many actors in this chain (after all, little research is done without coffee…).

Discussion Group Learning Outcomes

Beans at the Center

Discussion groups at universities are common platforms for early career researchers to interact. We have an original approach by placing cacao and coffee at the center. Around the beans, we bring together all research perspectives along the value chain. Our discussions are thematic and develop around topics and questions that all of us deal with: What is my role and responsibility as a researcher? How does my research contribute to sustainable cacao and coffee? How do my personal motivations shape the way I do research?

The First Meeting

The first virtual meeting of the group started with introductions, which demonstrated a nice overview of a diverse group. Participants come from Latin-America, Africa, Asia and Europe, and research is being done on all these continents. There is a slight overrepresentation of people in soil and plant science, but the spectrum includes food safety, chemistry and social sciences. Besides participating in the discussions, networking is an important benefit to the group.

An interesting result of this diversity is that we may have different ideas of what sustainability means or how to achieve it. Coming back to the metaphor: how do rivers flow smoothly and what removes possible barriers to work towards sustainability. If you were to sail down the value chain you would find us at different places along the way. We would talk to you in our own language like a local guide explaining what there is to see and what we can do to make the river better. By talking to each other in discussion sessions, we device a common language and learn to communicate about our research with other scientists.

Future Sessions

We do not know yet what will come out of our discussions. Nevertheless, we want to write stories that illustrate what happens when scientists from diverse fields get together to discuss beans. We hope to show, through insights from our thematic discussions, how fascinatingly complex and important it is to build sustainable cacao and coffee futures. Ideally this can stimulate conversations beyond the group. Finally, it will become clear that we are people growing personally and professionally via our love for knowledge.

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