Chocolate: the Bitter & the Sweet

From Cacao to Chocolate

A glimpse inside a pod reveals the white cacao beans, which ultimately become chocolate.

A glimpse inside a pod reveals the white cacao beans, which ultimately become chocolate.

Theobroma cacao, better known as cacao, is the name of the small tropical tree that bears cacao fruit. Yes, chocolate grows on trees – but it’s a long process from bean to bar. One cacao tree bears close to two thousand pods per year and the pods contain the beans that become chocolate. If you were to bite right into a bean straight from the pod it would be extremely bitter, nothing like the chocolate we are familiar with at the grocery store.

So how does chocolate become the chocolate we know and love? Farmers begin by harvesting the pods and stripping them of their beans. From there, the beans go through a fermentation process that turns the bitter flavors into something more like chocolate. After fermentation is complete, the beans are dried in the sun for about a week before being sent to a factory. Unfortunately, the production of chocolate has a dark side including contributions to climate change and human rights violations.

Chocolate’s Impact on the Environment: A Glance at Deforestation

For over a thousand years, cacao trees have been cultivated throughout tropical forest regions such as South and Central America, West Africa and Asia. Originally, these forests were tucked under the expansive canopy layer. Since then, however, many farmers have cleared forests to grow cacao trees in open plantations. This practice has led to numerous environmental problems such as fewer trees, fewer birds, and increased use of pesticides.

Deforestation of traditional cacao farms adds to the loss of tropical forests, which is already occurring at an alarming rate and is problematic for more than just one reason; the unnatural clearing of trees is directly linked to a shrinking bird population. Ultimately, when trees are cleared, birds that naturally keep pests away end up leaving the area, too. To counter this decrease in bird population, farmers turn to pesticides to protect their cacao trees. This leaves a lasting, detrimental effect on the environment.

Chocolate & Climate Change

Cacao fruits on the tree before being harvested.

Cacao fruits on the tree before being harvested.

Due to global climate change and the rising temperature of the earth, farmers that have grown chocolate for years are being pressured to produce other crops. The cacao tree is native to the Americas and grows in a limited geographical zone about 20° to the north and south of the equator, with close to 70% of the world’s cacao coming from West Africa. With rising temperatures and falling water supplies, the ideal climate for cacao trees is rapidly disappearing.

In the past four decades, the amount of land available for growing chocolate has dropped by 40%. By 2050, the temperature in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire is expected to rise at least 2°C. This increase in temperature will increase evapotranspiration in cacao trees, causing them to lose more water to the air and reducing their overall yield.

Cacao crops are very sensitive to climate change and increases in demand are outstripping our capacity to supply. Imagine not being able to buy chocolate when you have a craving – this is the reality we may be facing in the next few decades.

The Dark Side of Chocolate

Look for the official Fair Trade logo while you shop

In addition to environmental challenges, human rights violations are intertwined in the production of chocolate as well. Farmers are frequently forced to sell their cacao harvest to middlemen who rig scales or misrepresent prices and in some countries, child slavery is used to produce and harvest the beans. Many farmers earn as little as $0.25-$0.50 a day and are stuck in deep cycles of poverty. Limited education and a lack of enforcement of child labor laws lead to children working in the fields.

Fair Trade Makes Things Sweeter


The 
Fair Trade  certification ensures farmers receive a fair price for their bounty, which strictly prohibits slave and child labor and allows farmers to invest in techniques that bring out the flavors of the region. Essentially, fair trade ensures that your chocolate was produced in an ethical manner and provides a powerful way to help reduce poverty for farmers and workers in developing countries.Buy Fair Trade, organic chocolate and feel good doing it! Fair Trade also provides communities with a financial premium that they can use to invest in things like education. For every metric ton of Fair Trade cacao sold, farmers earn an additional $200 to invest in farm and community level projects such as school tuition, lunch programs, and new schools.

It is advantageous to find chocolate that is both Fair Trade and organic to avoid any possibility of eating chocolate that has been grown on a field with pesticides. Also, organic farms are routinely inspected, so workers experience better working conditions.

Where can Fair Trade, organic chocolate be purchased?

Here are a few brands to satisfy your sweet tooth while simultaneously taking environmental and social well being into account:

Also, check out the Food Empowerment Project, which provides a list of chocolates and identifies whether or not certain chocolate brands are made in areas where child labor still exists. The Food Empowerment Project also provides an easy to use, free app called the Chocolate List that can be downloaded in the App Store. The Chocolate List reflects companies that source Fair Trade chocolate and what companies to avoid. Download the app now to make shopping for sustainable chocolate a breeze.

Is Fair Trade Enough?

Giving chocolate farmers a fair wage is just as important as supporting Fair Trade chocolate. Learn more about fair wage issues around chocolate through the story of anarchist chocolatier Mott Green in the documentary Nothing Like Chocolate by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, a Sociology Professor at UC Santa Barbara. Mott Green, founder of The Grenada Chocolate Company (GCC), sought to find solutions to the problems of the ravaged global chocolate industry as he set out to make chocolate with a focus on environmental and social activism.

He built The Grenada Chocolate Company as a co-operative that utilizes employee shareholding and small-scale antique equipment. Within 5 years, the co-operative was producing 9 to 10 tons of local, organic chocolate and providing many people in the community with a fair wage.

Next time you crave chocolate, consider the implications of chocolate production when purchasing. Take a step for the people who are supplying your chocolate and for the environment as well. It will make the treat all the sweeter!

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