We have all experienced chocolate in one way or another and for the most part it’s a product loved by everyone. But for how much longer? According to some of the largest chocolate supply companies, cacao farms are disappearing at an alarming rate. But why? What’s causing such a threat?
Cacao trees grow within 10 degrees on either side of the equator in regions such as Central & South America, Africa and Asia. Each of these regions faces different threats to their cacao crops. Black pod rot, water mold, fungal disease and cocoa pod borers are just a few of the problems. “The cocoa pod borer tunnels into the center of the fruit and eats the seeds. Cost cacao growers $600 million in crop losses a year.” – Invasive Species Compendium.
“A fungal infection called Witches Broom reduced production by 80%. Driving people; whose families had grown cocoa for generations; to abandon their farms and move to city shantytowns, effectively destroying (in a few short years) a vast archive of cacao farming knowledge built over centuries.” – Scientific American
These issues paired with inefficient farming practices is having a massive effect on the decline of cacao. Chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar industry yet cacao is grown by some of the poorest communities in the world. The average age of a cacao farmer is 51 yrs old and they are compensated very little. Many of their crops are old and diseased. Without the means to regenerate, growers are moving on to more cost-effective plants such as corn, palm or rubber. Although previous cacao farmers are passing on their expertise, without modern management techniques the health of the crops continues to decline. Cacao trees have very little genetic variation and all come from the same species, because of this, cross breeding is easier but the plant cannot provide itself with a natural defense against disease.
“If one strain is genetically susceptible, chances are good they will all succumb. When farmers save their own seeds to plant trees, this leaves the trees even more susceptible to pests and fungi.” – Scientific American
Deforestation is also a huge factor in the decline of cacao trees and some of the more rare species.
“In early 2000, a scientific expedition discovered rare, blue-colored cacao pods. When returning the next season, scientists found that the trees had been felled for extending cattle grazing pastures. While the rate of deforestation in Brazil has slowed recently, hundreds of square miles continue to disappear and with it, it’s cacao diversity.” –Heirloom Cacao Preservation
The biggest question on everyone mind… What’s being done about it?!
The chocolate industry (like most products) has large corporations and small artisanal shops. Greedy, ‘big-wig’ companies have always had the ‘how much money can we make’ mentality. Companies such as Mars Inc., Nestle and Hershey are some of the biggest manufacturers of chocolate in the world. Perfect examples of selling your soul for money. These companies have a past of negative allegations such as child labor and insufficient profit shares. In the past few years a spotlight has been put on these corporations for accountability and higher standards. Many companies stepped up to prove they were listening and working to make changes, one being Nestle. With the Nestle Cocoa Plan they wanted to give $120 million to breed disease resistant cocoa saplings and give them to cacao farmers. Then to help communities that rely on the distribution of cacao, they will help build new schools. Although the plan sounded good and they now claim on their website that things are moving in a positive direction, many people were concerned it was all smoke and mirrors. It seemed as though Nestle had come up with a great plan to help cacao farmers succeed but never actually asked the growers what would be helpful to them.
But don’t worry!!!
There are many organizations and companies in the industry (not being run by greed) that are making a real difference. The Rainforest Alliance is one that we can count on to help maintain and revitalize the land that cacao farmers utilize.
“Rigorous training in efficient and sustainable farm management is the key to stabilizing their microclimate and stopping the destructive cycle of poverty and deforestation.” –RACC
Supporting farmers and providing them with knowledge instead of just ‘doing it for them’. This way of thinking will help cacao growers help themselves and the next generation. RAC isn’t the only organization dedicated to educating. The United Nations Development Program, Cocoa Life, The Environmental Sustainability and Policy for Cocoa Production Project are a few that are serious about “training field officers on the general framework of environmental sustainability.” – UNDA. By providing this education, farmers are not having to find alternative ways to grow cacao more intensively. Less hybrids that require full-sun and less pesticides.
Organizations are not the only ones getting in on the action, so are chocolate makers and chocolatiers!
One of my favorite examples is Vintage Plantations (founded by Pierrick Chouard). They are a “pioneer in the renewal of artisan small-batch chocolate making”. Chouard’s journey to sustainably sourced cacao started in the late 1990’s when he was a manager of a French chocolate company and traveled to the Dominican Republic. He was able to see first hand all the challenges facing cacao farmers. He began helping cacao growers to conduct better farming practices and also donated a generous amount to The Rainforest Alliance to start a project identifying a sustainable source for a new line of chocolates. Vintage Plantations Arriba Chocolate collection was the first to bear the Rainforest Alliance Certified green frog seal. Their mission, although difficult, is easy to understand. Aid farmers, protect the environment, no use of harmful chemicals, maximize farmer profits and develop high quality chocolate.
There are so many companies putting seals on their products these days, it’s difficult to know if any of them are actually making a difference. The Rainforest Alliance and the Direct Trade seals are two that we might be able to count on. One helps keep the environment healthy so better crops can be grown and the other cuts out the middle man.
A great example of a Direct Trade chocolate company is Askinosie Chocolates (founder Shawn Askinosie). In most cases Chocolatiers have multiple steps they have to take to receive their chocolate. There are importers, distributors, manufacturers and so on. Askinosie Chocolates does all of the middle man work themselves. They are directly connected to the cacao farmers that they buy their beans from. According to their website, all of their chocolate is 100% traceable. That means they could tell you the name of every farmer they work with. They visit the plantations, perform quality inspections and even import the beans. This is a very unheard of practice in the chocolate world. They work strictly with growers who practice responsible cultivation and pesticide-free methods. By conducting business this way, they have absolute control over every single step in the process and can pay farmers directly with much higher compensation.
The only way to maintain a steady flow of chocolate in the industry is to support the farmers. The more assistance the cacao growers get, the better chance of having flavorful, high-quality chocolate in the future.