Americans eat about 12 pounds of chocolate per person each year…and over 200 pounds of meat per person each year. How wrong is that? Sure, meat is umm, protein-rich, but chocolate is delicious, decadent, sexy—and potentially endangered?
In July, CNN reported that cacao could be heading the way of the sturgeon if we don’t change our ways. John Mason, the founder and executive director of Nature Conservation Research Council (NCRC) in Ghana said, “I think that in 20 years chocolate will be like caviar. It will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won’t be able to afford it.”
To find out, let’s start with the basics—and some harsh truths. There is no chocolate river and there are no oompa loompas. (There are, however, dirty rivers and cacao farmers who are much taller, much less orange, and don’t sing the kinda creepy, rather catchy oompa loompa song.)
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree—a shade tree native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. Cacao trees live beneath the tall trees that make up the rainforest canopy. They grow up to 30 feet tall and live 75 to 100 years, although they typically only produce fruit (seeds) between the ages of five and 25.
Cacao trees are an integral part of the rainforest ecosystem. Their roots prevent soil erosion and their leaves fall to the forest floor where they act as a breeding ground for tiny insects called midges. Those midges just happen to be the only insects small enough to make their way into the tiny cacao blossom to pollinate the flower. Once the blossoms are pollinated they will produce tough-shelled pods filled with sweet pulp and bitter cacao seeds. Birds and mammals break open the pod, slurp up the pulp and spit out the seeds. The seeds, left on the forest floor, will sprout new cacao trees.
But those cacao seeds are also the key to the chocolate we crave—each pod contains about 50 seeds and it takes about 200 seeds to produce one pound of chocolate. To the farmers, seeds = money (although in most cases, they collect only $.01 for every $.60 chocolate bar). In an attempt to make more money by producing more seeds, farmers are moving cacao trees out of their rainforest habitat and into sunny, open fields.
Cacao trees grow faster in the sun, but they rarely live more than 30 years. Without the help of the plants and animals that makeup the rainforest ecosystem, cacao trees are more susceptible to pests and disease. And so, to keep the trees alive, farmers douse them in more pesticides and agricultural chemicals than any other crop (except cotton). Even worse, these intensive farming practices destroy the land. The soil erodes and loses its fertility so that when the cacao trees die, the farmers must move to a new location, often clear-cutting rainforest to plant more cacao trees in sunny, open fields.
Sadly, this is how most of the cacao seeds we use for chocolate are grown. And at this rate, chocolate could soon be just as rare as Mr. Mason predicted.
BUT, there are Willy Wonka-like people in the world—good people who know that a world without chocolate would be a very unhappy place. These geniuses have also figured out the secret to sustainable cacao harvesting: bring the trees back to the rainforest.
For some, this means growing cacao in a cabruca, a section of the rainforest where a farmer cuts a few of the tall rainforest trees and plants the mid-level cacao trees underneath, creating a natural, but sunnier, environment. Other sustainable cacao farmers plant their trees on the edge of rainforests where they can benefit from the pollinators and natural pesticides in the rainforest (and give the rainforest a little extra protection from human activities).
To keep chocolate from becoming something only served at swanky galas, we’ve gotta farm it sustainably and that means that we’ve gotta buy the sustainable stuff. How? Look for organic of Fair Trade labels. Big companies like Green and Black’s (the mint dark chocolate bar is amazing) and Dagoba make certified organic chocolate and Endangered Species Chocolate sells some organic bars. But the most sustainable chocolate might come from smaller companies. These companies often go above and beyond the organic and fair trade regulations, but can’t afford to pay for the certification. (Check out Askinosie, Theo and Tcho.)