Chocolate - How guilty a pleasure?

April 4, 2021
By Rima in 

When it comes to putting Chocolate and sustainability together, a lot of issues seem to appear. Some people will even say that the chocolate industry is one of the worst for the planet and people.

But most of us would say that chocolate and cacao are a guilty pleasure that we will never say no to, and feel sorry for anyone with a cacao intolerance. In this article my focus will be on the sustainability of cacao production, the problems, the importance, and the possible positive future.

Chocolate is the main product made from cacao beans, but there are many other products which use cacao as an essential ingredient. The cacao plant is called Theobroma which means ‘food of the gods’ in Greek. Cacao is native to the Amazon basin and was domesticated in Mexico and Central America about 4,000 years ago. Nowadays though almost 70% of the world’s cacao comes from Africa, and especially from the Ivory Coast.

Personally, I do love chocolate, but not all of it, it has to be good. There are really just two chocolate cakes that I love. One you can find in Lisbon (thanks to Vera, who showed Marco the place, then he took me, and I took the rest of my people) and another we accidentally found in Tijuana, Mexico.

Sadly, we cannot deny the environmental problems caused by the cacao industry, as well as human exploitation in the fields. According to statistics, the global market was valued at USD 130.56 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow by 4.6% from 2020 to 2027. It means that the demand for cacao is growing rapidly at the same time as the industry faces problems.

Cacao needs quite specific conditions, the right amount of shade, rich soil, and a certain amount of dampness. Uncontrolled use of chemicals, deforestation, unmaintained tree stock, soil pollution, and climate change all make the industry struggle and need to look for new solutions.

The demand for sustainable and ethical production are encouraging positive changes to be made in the industry which has a direct positive impact on the environmental issues.

We should mention ‘Fairtrade’. Not such a long time ago the workers in the cacao industry (in fact in most farming) were exploited, young kids were kidnapped and enslaved to work on the farms without any protection or rights. In the last couple of decades, things have started to improve as the international awareness of the situation and collaboration helped to force changes. Small farmholders have got more support as well. Yes it is still a work in process, but we can see the positive change.

The Fairtrade system is helping to change the cacao business. We as customers can, by choosing Fairtrade cacao or chocolate products, support that change as well. It ensures that cacao farmers, and workers, are paid a fair minimum price, which secures their incomes even if the market price drops. It helps create economic sustainability in the sector and for it's people. Fairtrade invests in projects, improves infrastructure, and encourages small scale farmers to join cooperatives and support programs.

Coming back to the environmental problems, I looked at statistics provided by Our World in Data and it was hard not to notice that chocolate is one of the worst foods one can eat in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. One of the main factors to play a role in this high footprint is deforestation. The Ivory Coast has lost 80% of its forest in the last five decades because of the cacao industry. Rainforests in the Amazon are being cleared for the same reason – the humid, rich soil is perfect for cacao.

The worst part of this is that the trees and cacao can happily grow together. At least 17 scientific studies have shown that shade-growing cacao can be highly effective.

Cacao can be grown in the shadow of other trees unlike crops like palm oil. In this way soil erosion can be prevented, as well as wind being blocked, and the plants are more naturally protected from pests. This is, after all, the natural way for cacao to grow, in the forests. The studies made in Africa and the Americas showed that this way of farming improves biodiversity, enriches the soil, and increases the level of carbon sequestered.

Moreover, there is evidence that these sustainable environment friendly shade-growing methods can help to increase the harvest. A major study in Brazil in 2016 showed this. Shade-growing also means that the farmers don’t need to rely on just one crop. For example, combining cacao with avocados could be a great sustainable approach for both crops.
Add in some simple steps like effective pruning, using natural compost, and encouraging biodiversity and you immediately have a much more sustainable approach and positive looking outcome for cacao farming.

The road to sustainable agriculture in general, as well to sustainable cacao farming is a long one in global terms. With international agreements, industry support, NGOs, education and alternative farming methods it is already starting to head along the right path. At the same time, some countries in Africa are already facing the negative effects of climate change and these are causing problems with every kind of agriculture, compounded by a recent history of using farming practices that are far from the best. As Richardo Zapata, leader of a cacao pruning project in Ecuador, says:
“We do not need a specialist in cacao. We need to educate people in agriculture, on innovative techniques they can apply in their farms and the farms of their families, friends, and communities. We have elderly people who tell us that they prefer their arms cut off than branches be cut off. Because they think that branch is going to produce a lot of cacao for them. Yet after seeing results from pruning, that’s changed. Friends and neighbors can visualize the results. We can convince them and ourselves.”

Like I used to sing with my Malawian students – education is the key. Even with all of these efforts, growing the cacao beans more sustainably doesn’t mean that the product that reaches customers will be particularly environmentally friendly. Why? Because on the processing journey of those beans, massive amounts of water are used and wasted, then there is chocolate packaging, shipping across the world, and industry waste in general. Finally there is food waste, right now Easter is coming up and just imagine how many chocolate Easter eggs will end up as waste together with their packaging. You might think that nobody willingly throws chocolate away but according to the International Cacao Organization around 700 thousand tons of cacao waste are generated globally each year.

This is not just on the farmers, big chocolate producers, and shopping malls, it is on us, the chocolate lovers, as well to make the business of ‘’the food of gods’’ as sustainable and environment friendly as possible.

We first published this article in the Platforma EKO newsletter Towards Sustainability: Issue 9 - March 2021.

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