Dear EarthTalk: I heard a reference to eco-friendly chocolate and was wondering about what goes into chocolate that would raise environmental concerns.
—Ben Mahon, Woonsocket, RI
Like coffee beans, the cacao seeds from which we derive chocolate can only be grown successfully in equatorial regions—right where the world’s few remaining tropical rainforests thrive. As worldwide demand for chocolate grows, so does the temptation among growers to clear more and more rainforest to accommodate high-yield monocultural (single-crop) cacao tree plantations. What are left are open, sunny fields with dramatically lower levels of plant and animal diversity. Adding environmental insult to injury, most cacao plantations use copious amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides that further degrade the land that once teemed with a wide variety of rare birds, mammals and plants.
Another problem with chocolate production, although not specifically an environmental concern, is the conditions endured by workers that pick and process the cacao seeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture has documented some 284,000 children between the ages of nine and 12 working in hazardous conditions on West African cacao farms. In Africa’s Ivory Coast, for example, where more than 40 percent of the world’s cacao is grown, underage cacao workers are routinely overworked, performing often-dangerous farming tasks in a setting that some liken to slavery. As a result of these and other related injustices, so-called “fair trade” advocates have targeted large producers of cacao to improve working conditions and pay living wages that allow workers to get their kids out of the fields and into school.
Some cacao farmers have enlisted the help of scientists and environmental groups to find ways to produce chocolate more fairly and more sustainably. The nonprofit Rainforest Alliance, which works on similar issues with coffee growers, is now partnering with cacao growers in Ecuador to develop environmentally and socially responsible cacao production and processing standards. The standards seek to maintain critical conservation areas, reduce pressures to convert more forestland to cacao plantations, and provide social and economic benefits to local communities. As a result, some 2,000 cacao growers in five Ecuadorian communities have now formed cooperatives that help find new markets for their products while overseeing adherence to fair labor standards and environmental protection measures. Rainforest Alliance hopes to expand the program to other cacao growing regions of the world in the coming years.
Those looking to get their hands on some organically grown fair trade chocolate have more options than ever before. Leading brands include Dagoba, Endangered Species Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Green & Black’s, Sjaak’s, Sunspire, Terra Nostra Divine, Theo, Sweet Earth, and Yachana Gourmet. Actor Paul Newman has gotten in on the act, too, with his Newman’s Own brand. Like Newman’s Own, many of the companies donate money to environmental and other nonprofit efforts. Whole Foods and other natural foods retailers stock many of these brands, which are also available via various Internet-based retailers including Global Exchange’s Fair Trade Online Store.