A worker splits open ripe cacao pods to remove the seeds. As with coffee, the best chocolate is grown in the shade of canopy trees.From "The Chocolate Tree" Photo © Allen M. Young
Chocolate, like many tropical understory crops, has shady origins. The cacao tree, which produces pods containing cocoa beans, needs protection from the sun to thrive—especially during the first three years of its life. Its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods," and people have long found its taste heavenly.
In 1519, Aztec Emperor Montezuma presented Spanish explorer Cortez with a drink of hot cocoa at a special ceremony. Soon afterward, Europeans—at least the nobility who could afford it—lavishly enjoyed the beverage as creative minds experimented with its possibilities. The Dutch darkened it, and the Swiss added milk. Today, we find chocolate sliding down scoops of ice cream, speckling our pancakes and frosting our black forest cakes. We’re stretching chocolate to its culinary capacity, and unfortunately, our growing global appetite may be exhausting tropical ecosystems.
The Plantation Problem
Large cocoa plantations represent a significant part of the problem. Because of increased exposure to the sun and other elements, the plants require more fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide than those grown on small-scale farms. "In the long term, a plantation will die," says Stephanie Daniels, development coordinator at Organic Commodity Products (OCP), a national chocolate supplier in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The soil and whole health of the plant are compromised." In an effort to promote sustainable cultivation practices, OCP pays small farmers in Central America, South America and West Africa premium prices for their cocoa crops and provides technical aid.
With row after row of cacao trees vulnerable to attack, plantations provide ample breeding grounds for pathogens. Diseases such as witches" broom, (which leaves pods brown and dry) and black pod (a cousin of potato blight) thrive in the humid climate of the rainforest. "The tropical environment is very conducive to the development of disease," explains John Bowers, a U.S. Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist.
These diseases have the potential to devastate the chocolate industry. According to a report published by the American Phytopathological Society, the production of cocoa beans in Brazil dropped from 400,000 to 100,000 metric tons in just a decade as a result of a particular fungus. Bowers and his fellow scientists investigate ways to reduce the need for pesticides through increasing the effectiveness of biological control agents, such as local strains of natural bacteria and fungi, for farmers to spray on their crops.
But advances in agricultural science don’t always make it from laboratory to field. The six million small farmers who grow more than 85 percent of the world’s cocoa generally can’t afford the pricey sprays developed by researchers. For this reason, the American Cocoa Research Institute established the World Cocoa Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing low-cost technology transfer to increase the quality and yield of cocoa on farms on several continents. The foundation teaches grafting and pruning techniques and supports cocoa tree rehabilitation programs in areas such as the Dominican Republic, where Hurricane Georges destroyed thousands of acres of farmland in 1998. But while these researchers and environmentalists work to develop alternative farming solutions, we continue to empty our snack machines of their chocolate contents.
Sweet and Sustainable
If you feel like taking a stand for the rainforest the next time you sit down to enjoy a sweet treat, you won’t come up short on options for indulgence. A growing number of companies have decided to dip into the sustainable chocolate market, and that means a wider selection of products for consumers. Jon Stocking, president and founder of the Endangered Species Chocolate Company, recently decided to add Bug Bites to his candy line-up. These playful, 0.35-ounce organic Belgian milk chocolate and organic, dairy-free Belgian dark chocolate squares promote the positive role of insects in ecosystems. Priced at 39 cents, each Bug-Bites" wrapper contains a trading card featuring a particular critter.
"We use chocolate as a medium for an environmental message," says Stocking. Each year, he donates at least 10 percent of the company’s profits to conservation organizations such as the Jane Goodall Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Inspired by Joe Whinney, president of OCP, Newman’s Own Organics decided to create a scrumptious assortment of chocolate products. The company, headed by Peter Meehan and Paul Newman’s daughter, Nell, now offers a wide variety of bars ranging from classic milk chocolate to orange-flavored dark chocolate ($1.79 each). Newman’s Own Organics also has the ever-essential chocolate peanut butter cup (79 cents per package).
If it’s bite-size satisfaction you crave, Edward & Sons Trading Company has recently introduced Edward’s Organic Fine Confections ($2.89 per box). Both the fruit and mint varieties of these chocolate-dipped fruit jellies are vegan. To match the restrictions of certain diets, Rapunzel Pure Organics produces five dairy-free and soy-free dark chocolate bars ($2.49 each). Rapunzel combines imported Swiss gourmet organic chocolate with organic, unrefined evaporated sugarcane juice and refuses genetically engineered soy lecithin.
Following the idea that food products can supply vitamins and nutrients and taste good at the same time, Functional Foods created SmartChocolate bars, which mix organically grown chocolate with various botanical extracts. The SmartChocolate Energy Bar contains ginseng—which many herbalists claim relieves stress—and the Serenity Bar contains the potentially uplifting St. John’s Wort (each $1.99).
The truly adventurous chocoholic need not look further than Dagoba Organic Chocolate (online at $3.39 each). "I saw a real lack of creativity in terms of what flavors are presented to consumers," confesses Frederick Schilling, the company’s founder. "I got tired of chocolate with hazelnuts and chocolate with almonds." To amend this problem, he created a sweet citrus Organic Lime Chocolate Bar (not surprisingly, the world’s first) and a Chocolatte½ Bar, infused with organic espresso beans and cinnamon.
To organic chocolate companies and suppliers, sustainable cocoa farming remains the only viable option for the future. Growing chocolate any other way would yield only bittersweet results.
ROXANNE KHAMSI, an E intern, is a student at Dartmouth College and avidly enjoys the sweet rewards of researching organic foods.