Celebrating Nature’s diversity: Yellow Seed supports small-scale farmer ecoagriculture through buyer collaboration

By Julian Moll-Rocek

Peering from a distant point in space towards our blue planet, one notices a strange effect: the land has become increasingly pixelated. What was once a jumbled mixture of landscape uses has been transformed into uniform blocks of vast industrialized fields. The emergence of large-scale monoculture farming has brought with it a host of social and ecological problems, displacing rural communities and leading to severe environmental degradation. As landscapes are increasingly homogenized, we as consumers have become estranged from the sources of our material needs, most directly food.


Satellite image of California’s Central Valley. In the Valley about 1% of US farmland  produces around ¼ of the nation’s food supply. Huge monoculture farms can be seen as uniform blocks of color dotting the land. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

As the dangerous consequences of disconnected consumption and monoculture production become increasingly clear, the importance of small farmers is becoming recognized as fundamental to a sustainable future. 1.5 billion people depend directly on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods (1). A UN report released in 2013 emphasized the critical value of small farmers in providing a wide array of ecological benefits to the planet and called for a “fundamental transformation of agriculture” emphasizing the role of agro-ecological methods. The essential linkages between small farms, poverty reduction and climate resilience were further highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s decision to declare 2014 the “International Year of Family Farming.”  At the recent UN Climate Summit in New York, small farmers were recognized as being on the frontline of climate change, both directly affected by changes and critical for global mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Yet small farmers face intrinsic barriers within our globalized trade systems. Small farmers are marginalized by economies of scale that rely on industrialized, highly efficient production systems and as a result, remain largely isolated from global markets (2). “The global economy can only metabolize simple carbohydrates, ” says Greg Landua of Terra Genesis International LLC, The Financial Permaculture Institute, and Nova Monda Cacao & Chocolate, referring to the unhealthy predisposition globalization has for generic commodities. “This creates a huge supply chain challenge because our society is geared towards the bulk purchase and movement of commodities. There is no one that specializes in a poly-culture logistics situation where small farms producing many different crops have a service to link them economically.”


Greg Landua, permaculture thinker, chocolate business owner and cacao farmer. Image courtesy of Greg’s Blog: http://www.gaiaemerging.blogspot.com/

We have seen the devastating effects of this “simple syrup” addiction. What the world needs is a diverse diet that is healthy for the planet and its people. Enter Yellow Seed: a new organization that links diverse small farms to the global economy, allowing them to provide the world with the essential services that monocultures systematically degrade. Currently, 80-90% of world cacao production comes from small family farms, representing some 5-6 million farmers world-wide (3). Yellow Seed is focusing on heirloom cacao farmers in Latin America because of the myriad qualities of cacao that make it ideal for sustainable farming.


Yellow Seed’s Collaborative Business Model


“Cacao is marvelous for a number of reasons. Cacao lends itself to diversity. On the farm level it’s really possible and it rewards you both in terms of yields of cacao as well as quality. The more diversity introduced to cacao plantations the better, ” explains Robin Van Loon, founder of Camino Verde, an organization dedicated to planting trees that are both ecologically beneficial and economically productive in Madre de Dios, Peru. Camino Verde has focused on species traditionally used for timber whose bark and leaves can be used for the production of aromatic essential oils, a key ingredient in the cosmetics industry. Harvesting essential oils from these trees allows economic return while keeping the trees alive – a sustainable alternative to logging.


Diversity in cacao pods.  Image courtesy of  The Puerto Rican cacao Project. http://www.ars-grin.gov/may/prcocoa/study.html

Diversity – an essential part of sustainability – means resilience. A diverse system is able to recover from unexpected disruptions. “I love cacao from an ecological standpoint,” says Van Loon. Cacao is a shade-loving crop, and grows well in an agroforestry system, wherein farmers emulate the complex layers of canopy found in natural rainforests to create the optimal conditions for cacao (4). Compared with monoculture cropping, cacao agroforestry systems maintain far higher levels of native biodiversity. They also preserve essential ecosystem services such as water regulation and pollination (5).


Robin Van Loon and partner-farmers in the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo on the Yaguasyacu River. Image courtesy of www.facebook.com/CaminoVerdePeru

Furthermore, cacao production overlaps with some of the most biodiverse areas of the globe. Centered around low-land tropics in Africa, Asia and Latin America, areas of cacao production correspond with an overwhelming number of biodiversity hotspots.


Cacao production overlaps significantly with biodiversity hotspots (in green). Map courtesy of The Landscapes for People, Food and Nature initiative.


“The Amazon abhors monoculture,” says Van Loon. The western rim of the Amazon rainforest, where Van Loon’s Camino Verde works, is known as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, with an average of upwards of 150 tree species/hectare (an area about the size of two football fields, or 100 x 100 meters).

Underlining the importance of healthy ecosystems, Van Loon explains, “I have a philosophical notion to try to take as many cues from the ecosystem as possible. The notion is that if your dwelling, your community, your farm is laid out in ways that mimic the surrounding natural order then they are more likely to be successful and have longevity.”

Yellow Seed is conducting market research to launch Bean Match as a pilot program, enabling small-scale farmers to sell their quality cacao beans directly to chocolate makers in the US. The program is designed to allow chocolate makers to collaborate on joint shipping to source small batch varieties of beans directly from farmers. Yellow Seed acts as a community backbone to allow collaborative trade that would otherwise be too expensive, too hard to coordinate, or simply impossible for makers and farmers to connect. Yellow Seed provides profile hosting, match-making for farmers and makers, collaborative purchasing and distribution solutions and continuous feedback between parties.

By supporting small farmers using agroecological farming systems in extremely biodiverse areas of the world, Yellow Seed is helping to promote biodiversity conservation across the world. Cacao is the just the beginning to creating a business case for biodiverse ecosystems, empowering small farmers to maintain their communities and traditions for a truly sustainable development. And making global trade work towards diversity rather than bulk commodities means a more resilient world.



(1) Altieri M.A., Koohafkan, P., Enduring Farms: Climate Change, Smallholders and Traditional Farming Communities. Environment and Development Series. FAO (2008)

(2) Masters, W.A., et al., Urbanization and farm size in Asia and Africa: Implications for food security and agricultural research. Global Food Security (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2013.07.002i

(3) Cocoa Market Update. April 1, 2014. World Cocoa Foundation. http://worldcocoafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/Cocoa-Market-Update-as-of-4-1-2014.pdf

(4) Information on cocoa agroforestry: http://worldcocoafoundation.org/topics/agroforestry/

(5) Schroth, G. & Harvey, C. Biodiversity conservation in cocoa production landscapes. Biodiversity Conservation (2007). DOI 10.1007/s10531-007-9195-1

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