It’s one thing to eat chocolate, another to buy organic chocolate, and another to understand if this addiction is actually sustainable fullstop. Seriously, what would you do tomorrow if the chocolate stocks were to run dry?!
So what is it about chocolate that makes our hearts melt and our mouths drool?
You can’t deny the allure of chocolate. When over 20 million kilograms of the stuff is consumed world wide, it’s clear to see that the Mayans were on to something well before their time. It’s wrapped in luxury, with each delicious morsel evoking a string of chemical reactions in the brain that makes one goes bonkers. I have my suspicions that some of the greatest literature known to man was written under the influence of a chocolate coma. It has, after all, inspired romance, music, books and movies throughout the ages. Just thinking about it makes me salivate over my keyboard.
Cacao specifically has been crowned as being as magical as the Wizard of Oz. There seems to be widespread praise for the miracle health benefits of cacao. While most of this is true, that it has health benefits like antioxidants and magnesium and so forth, the idea of cacao and cocoa being two completely things is somewhat misleading. Where we’ve been led to believe that one is superior over the other is actually a bit of a marketing gimmick and lack of understanding of the words origins. You can read more about this here in the first part of this two part series on cacao and chocolate.
Let’s be clear though. When I speak of chocolate, I’m not referring to the refined, highly processed Hersheys or Cadbury kind. Now in this, there is a CLEAR difference. From an organic chocolate bar that has two simple ingredients like the brand I found in Nicaragua pictured below (yes, it has just organic cacao and organic sugar!) to the endless list on the back of other highly processed and ‘fake’ chocolates. Sorry to break the news to you guys. But have you looked on the ingredient label of those bars?
This raises the question though.
If you’ve finally found your dreamy organic chocolate with minimal ingredients and all its cacao goodness, can you actually sleep easy at night knowing that it may or may not be as sustainable as you thought?
Is Organic Chocolate Sustainable?
First you need to understand the process that goes into making chocolate. I wrote about this in my first post that I mentioned earlier about the wonderful world of cacao. So go ahead and read it first here if you haven’t already and then come back to this.
Just like my report delving into the world of sustainable coffee, the question of whether cacao can be grown a sustainably is far too interesting to not explore further.
Similar to coffee, the climate and temperatures in Central America pertain to some of the best growing climates for cacao in the world. Cacao trees are grown in equatorial regions where temperatures are high and humid. Native to the Americas, it is the Mayans who we have to thank for this delectable delight. Grown outside of these regions may require more intensive farming methods that are both inefficient and unsustainable.
In Nicaragua (where I am now, humbling dabbling in samples of as much coffee and cacao a girl can ingest), cacao has become a significant player in the economy. “Nicaragua is now the biggest producer of cacao in Central America, harvesting 5,800 metric tons last year, 60% of which were exported while the rest was consumed domestically (Source).”
Sadly, the pressures of climate change may impact on the industry. A study by Michael Gross reports,
“As a rapidly growing global consumer base appreciates the pleasures of coffee and chocolate and health warnings are being replaced by more encouraging sounds from medical experts, their supply is under threat from climate change, pests and financial problems.”
Cacao farming does offer hope for farmers though as it’s the coffee industry that’s particularly infamous for being more volatile. Both crops can, however, provide the opportunity to diversify one’s income depending on the methods use to farm the fruit.
What Does Sustainable Cacao Look Like?
The cacao tree thrives in an environment that replicates that in the wild; where a canopy cover can shade it from direct wind and sun and the ground cover of leaves retain soil moisture. It does, however, require the intervention of animals or humans to disperse the seeds in order to populate and area. In Nicaragua, 98% of the cocoa is produced from small scale farmers who own less than 7 hectares of land. This creates a very intimate connection to the production process.
Grown in this manner reduces the reliance on expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are common in largescale monoculture farming. Furthermore, “Organic production costs are not only lower than conventional ones, it increases productivity, improves both the environment as well as the quality of life for producers and offers buyers a healthier product,” explains World Bank social development specialist Mary Lisbeth Gonzalez (Source).
Rainforest Canopy vs Sun Farming
Does it come as a surprise then that cacao trees grown in natural, rainforest ecosystems are more sustainable for both us and the environment? Well, hopefully it doesn’t. The monocropping of cacao trees bring with it many disadvantages, both for the farmer and mother earth.
So here’s a quick checklist of questions to consider when you buy your chocolate.
Where is the cacao grown?
What methods have been employed to grow the cacao?
Who else is involved in the supply chain that may take profits away from the people who need it most?
What additional ingredients are being added to your final chocolate bar that determines whether it is actually as healthy for you?
It’s not just the health benefits to you of organic cacao that we need to consider; it’s the health of the environment the cacao trees are grown in that is crucial. For what’s a world without cacao trees? It’s a world without chocolate.
Now after all this talk of chocolate, whose ready for some of the real stuff?!
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