Honoring the gift of Quetzalcoatl: chocolate and its impacts


TWH: Chocolate is regularly enjoyed by a variety of people, and it is incorporated into many foods and culinary delights, in addition to being consumed as a simple chocolate bar. Chocolate is more of a food product that requires processing than a food. Complex processing transforms it from a cocoa bean into a bite of sensual pleasure.

Image Credit: Alexander Stein via Pixabay

Like most food products, the manufacture of chocolate has negative environmental consequences. Ivory Coast (Ivory Coast) and Ghana depend economically on the production of chocolate for export. Reducing its damage has to satisfy two groups: chocolate cravings and cocoa bean workers.

A brief history of chocolate.

In 2022, the BBC Science Focus website reported on the history and process of making chocolate.

Originally from the tropical jungles of the Americas, chocolate was part of the Columbian Exchange. That term describes the colonial interaction and exchange of goods and people after Columbus. Chocolate, in that sense, carries heavy karma.

Chocolate begins as a bean from the cacao tree. Archaeologists have found evidence of human use of cacao as early as 3300 B.C. C. For the Mayans, it was a “thick, foamy and bitter drink”. From 250 to 900 CE, cocoa beans were used as currency.

The Aztecs (1345 to 1521) believed that Quetzalcoatl gave humans chocolate and drank cocoa products for aphrodisiac and medicinal purposes.

How is chocolate made?

In nature, chocolate begins inside the pods of a small evergreen tree, Theobroma cacao. Cocoa tree pods can grow up to 35 cm (13.8 in) long.

Cocoa tree blossoms – Image credit: Björn S. – CC BY-SA 3.0

Once pollinated, the flowers transform into pods that contain the beans. After about six months, the pods ripen and ripen. The pods are harvested by hand by cacao farm workers, who crack open the pods to extract the beans embedded in a sweet, sticky, slimy pulp.

Once the pulp and beans are removed from the pods, the beans are fermented. The fermentation process involves placing the cocoa beans in heaps on dry ground and covering them with banana leaves or in boxes that have drainage holes. The beans are stirred every other day. Fermentation changes the appearance, smell, and taste of the beans and takes 6 to 10 days.

Once the fermentation process is complete, farm workers dry the beans in the sun, which are then roasted. Roasting kills microorganisms and also enhances the flavor. The beans are then sorted to remove any sprouted, broken, or moldy beans. From there, a cocoa grinder is used to crack open the beans and separate the shells from the beans. A winnowing machine then removes the lighter husks and dust. What remains is known as the “seeds”, the part of the cocoa bean that is used to make chocolate.

The tips are ground into a powder, which has a bitter taste. The Spanish brought cocoa powder to Europe in the 16th century. Only then did people begin to add sugar to the bitter drink of the Aztecs and Mayans.

After this stage, the cocoa powder is called “cacao”. The production process to make real chocolate is complex and the quality of the final product depends on a variety of factors.

Cocoa production and environmental impacts

In “Negative Environmental Externalities in the Cocoa, Coffee, and Oil Palm Value Chains in Africa,” researchers Priscilla Wainaina, Peter Minang, and Judith Nzyoka discuss the environmental impact of chocolate production. They restrict their discussion to the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Those two countries produce 75% of the world’s total chocolate. Currently, the intense production of cocoa leads to environmental damage.

Cocoa production employs more than 1,000,000 farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, approximately 4% of its population. In Ghana, 800,000 farmers grow cocoa, about 2% of its population. Around 90% of agricultural income in Côte d’Ivoire comes from cocoa. In Ghana, about 80% of farm income depends on cocoa.

Cocoa beans and pods – Image credit: Eduardo Calavera – CC BY-SA 4.0

Wainaina, Minang and Nzyoka found four types of negative environmental impacts related to chocolate. Those damages include deforestation, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, waste from processing cocoa beans, and the production of greenhouse gases.

The authors identified the four stages of the chocolate life cycle. Those four stages are 1) production, 2) processing, 3) distribution and marketing, and 4) consumption of chocolate.

Environmental impacts in cocoa cultivation

Cocoa production provides a necessary cash crop for the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Growing cash crops on farmland precludes growing food crops on those same farmlands.

As more people escape poverty, they want consumer goods like chocolate. This has increased the global demand for chocolate.

Cocoa tree with ripe pods – Image credit: Björn S. – CC BY-SA 3.0

That increased demand has led to the clearing of forests to grow cocoa. Between 2000 and 2018, the world’s largest cocoa producer, Côte d’Ivoire, lost 19% of its tree cover. In that same period, Ghana lost 16% of its tree cover. That loss of tree cover killed the trees that stored carbon dioxide. As dead trees decompose, they release their stored carbon dioxide.

Deforestation reduces the habitats of species. It also displaces communities with less power than the cocoa industry.

Some growers engage in intensified production technologies instead of clearing rainforests. Those intensive production technologies use a lot of fertilizers and pesticides, which have known environmental damage.

Pesticides affect human health through several pathways. First, pesticide residues can contaminate drinking water. Second, the pesticides can remain on the cocoa beans and end up in the human diet. Third, during pesticide application, pesticides can come into contact with human skin. When workers without protective gear apply pesticides to crops, humans suffer the worst damage.

The cultivation of cocoa beans produces 0.323 tons (712.1 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent per ton (2,204.6 pounds) of chocolate. The term “carbon dioxide equivalent” includes all greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide. The production and use of fertilizers drive this production of greenhouse gases.

Environmental impacts in cocoa processing

The workers have to ferment the seeds of the cacao tree. They then have to extract the beans from their pods and husks. Those hulls constitute about 67% of the weight of the fresh pod. One ton (2,204.6 lbs.) of wet cocoa beans will produce 50 liters (1.8 cubic feet) of pulp.

On cocoa farms, that pulp is then drained as liquid waste. Converting cacao to cocoa produces 0.28 to 1.91 tons (617.3 to 4,210.8 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent per ton (2,204.6 pounds) of chocolate.

Environmental impacts in the distribution and marketing of cocoa

Globalization requires the transport of goods over long distances. That transportation almost always burns fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

Distribution of cocoa beans produces 0.22 to 0.39 tons (485.0 to 859.8 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent per ton (2,204.6 pounds) of chocolate.

Environmental impacts of chocolate consumption

Chocolate packaging produces 0.3 tons (661.4 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent per ton (2,204.6 pounds) of chocolate.

Policies to minimize damage to cocoa production

Agroforestry refers to a set of sustainable practices for intense cocoa production. The US Department of Agriculture defines agroforestry as “the intentional integration of trees and trees into farming and animal husbandry systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.”

Under agroforestry, the farmer has many sources of income from different crops. As agroforestry increases tree cover, greenhouse gas uptake will increase. Among other benefits, it also promotes biodiversity.

A zero deforestation commitment occurs when a cocoa farmer publicly commits to respecting the limits of the forest.

NGOs or governments that monitor cocoa farms for sustainability issue sustainability certifications. Some groups will also certify fair labor practices. Unfair labor practices are another harm associated with cocoa production.

Some certification groups will pay cocoa farmers a premium over the market price of cocoa. Currently, cocoa farmers do not receive a “living wage” at market value.

Governments can issue regulations to limit the use of pesticides. Governments can also require improvements in waste treatment during processing.

These policies could reduce the environmental damage of cocoa production. People don’t have to give up chocolate, but they may have to pay more. The economies of the Ivory Coast and Ghana could develop cocoa as a cash crop for export. However, ethical chocolate consumers should advocate for the enactment and enforcement of sustainable policies.


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