Ancient yet totally contemporary, chocolate was first cultivated around 1000 BC and has grown into a sweet global industry worth more than $60 billion a year. The seemingly insatiable demand for cocoa has risen 3 percent a year for the past 100 years. America's piece of the endorphin-raising chocolate bar is $15 billion spent annually, with US consumers eating their way through some 2.8 billion pounds of the confection every year.
All that demand has significantly changed the way that cocoa beans, from which chocolate is made, are grown—and the environmental impact of their cultivation. Cacao trees, which grow cocoa beans, thrive in hot, humid conditions and can be grown in shade—which is why, until the 1970s, many cacao crops were planted under the rain forest canopy. This allowed cocoa farmers to produce their crop while leaving the rainforest canopy to support dozens of species of migratory songbirds, as well as a multitude of other wildlife native to and dependent on rain forests. But demand has led farmers to search for ways to increase cocoa bean yields, which they have done through full-sun production.
While productivity may be higher in sun than in shade, the crops require high quantities of fertilizers and pesticides to combat stress from heat and increased susceptibility to insects and disease. Cacao trees grown this way have the dubious honor of coming in second to cotton in crops that require the most pesticides, which can harm human and animal health. Lindane, for example, one of the most common pesticides used on cocoa in West Africa, may cause cancer and interfere with hormone function. In addition, the rain forest is being destroyed to make way for full-sun cocoa farms, destroying critical habitat and threatening soil health and waterways.
Not so sweet
Despite chocolate's huge popularity, the 5 to 6 million cocoa farmers and the 40 to 50 million people whose livings depend upon cocoa frequently see a disproportionately small portion of the profit. One penny from a candy bar that sells for 60 cents typically goes to the farmer. This has a direct environmental impact: small cocoa farmers who are unable to remain viable because they are not being paid sufficiently for their product often clearcut the land to sell the timber or graze livestock.
Environmentally friendly chocolate
Fortunately, you can have your chocolate and eat it too—without harming the earth or the people who grow the cocoa beans to make this delicious confection. Purchasing organic, fair trade, or Rainforest Alliance Certified chocolate are all ways to signal to chocolate manufacturers your support for cocoa farmers who minimize impacts on the rain forest environment.
Related health concerns
It's not often that you find something that tastes like a little slice of heaven that also might help, not harm your health. Chocolate, with antioxidant flavonoids that come from its source, the cacao plant, is such a food—but like a double-edged sword, it may also damage your health if you partake of it in large amounts. The main potential benefits from eating a bit of dark chocolate (which trumps milk chocolate or chocolate syrup) are reduced risk of heart attack, a drop in blood pressure, a reduction in insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes), and improvement in arterial blood flow. Natural cocoa powder is even higher in antioxidants than dark chocolate and can be used in hot chocolate or baking. The main health risk is related to caloric intake: six or seven chocolate kisses contains about 150 calories. Eaten in moderation, therefore, chocolate can increase health.
- The Cocoa Tree - Growing Cocoa
- Allchocolate.com - Understanding Chocolate
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Chocolate
- National Confectioners Association - The Story of Chocolate
- Rainforest Alliance - Research & Resources: Cacao (Theobroma cacao)
- Exploratorium, The museum of science, art and human perception - The Sweet Lure of Chocolate
- The GreenGuide - Product Report: Chocolate
- World Cocoa Foundation - Cocoa Farming: Fast Facts
- Global Exchange - Reverse-Trick-or-Treating: Kids Give Chocolate Back on Halloween to Their Neighborhoods and the World
- The Green Guide - The Good Valentine
- Worldwatch Institute - Good Stuff? Chocolate
- Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) - Cocoa