We humans

The steep price we pay for cheap chocolate

Feb 10, 2021 /

Thousands of years ago, the Maya people of Central America believed that chocolate was the food of the gods. The Maya — who helped pioneer cultivation of the cocoa tree, along with the Toltec and Aztec peoples — even used cocoa beans as a form of currency.

Fast forward to today, and chocolate is considered less of a rarity and more of an anytime treat. “Somehow the ancients understood that chocolate was special,” says owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolate Company Jean Thompson in her TEDxBellevueWomen Talk. “Today, chocolate is the inexpensive darling of the candy aisle.”

Worldwide people consume over 7 million tons of chocolate each year, with North America and Europe leading the way. In the US, the average person consumes 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms) of the sweet per year, while the British, Germans and Swiss clock in at over 17 pounds (8 kilograms).

But while chocolate brings so many people so much pleasure, its widespread availability comes at a high price. Growing and harvesting cocoa harms the environment, farmers and farm workers — and as global temperatures rise and weather patterns shift, climate change will dramatically reduce the land where cocoa can be grown and hurt those who rely on it.

The hunger for chocolate and the desire to grow more cacao are helping drive climate change — and climate change is hurting cacao  

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans which come from the pods of the Theobroma cacao, a tree that requires extremely specific climatic conditions to thrive. Africa is the leading  producer of cocoa, followed by South America and Asia. In fact, all chocolate is grown in a narrow band within 20 degrees north and south of the equator. This also means the land where cacao trees can flourish is limited.

Our ravenous demand for chocolate is driving people worldwide to clear forests for cacao farmland. In the Côte d’Ivoire, for example, more than 80 percent of the country’s forested areas have vanished between 1960 and 2010.

With suitable farmland dwindling and demand for chocolate projected to rise two to five percent each year, cacao plantations are also encroaching on protected lands. In the Côte d’Ivoire, an investigation by the environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth found that almost half of Mont Peko and Marahoue national parks were lost to cocoa plantations since 2000. In Indonesia, 1.7 million acres of forest — home to elephants and critically endangered orangutan, rhino and tiger populations — were cleared for cocoa plantations between 1988 and 2007. In Peru, which saw a five-fold increase in cocoa production between 1990 and 2013, satellite images revealed that thousands of acres of Amazon rainforest were cleared for cocoa trees.

What’s more, this deforestation is helping drive climate change, which in turn is hurting cocoa production. Tropical rainforests have some of the highest carbon storage capabilities of any ecosystem on Earth, so they release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere when they’re cut down. “A single dark chocolate bar made with cocoa from deforestation produces the same amount of carbon pollution as driving 4.9 miles in a car — an outsized impact for a small afternoon treat,” according to the Mighty Earth report.

As carbon emissions continue to rise, so will global temperatures and the incidence of extreme weather events. That’s more bad news for cocoa, which is highly sensitive to climate changes. According to current projections, the cocoa belt could see a 3.8°F (2.1°C) increase in temperature by 2050, and hotter temperatures and drier conditions will severely reduce cocoa yields.

During the 2015–16 season in Ghana, for example, the Harmattan winds that blow across Ghana from the Sahara Desert between late November and mid-March came early. The drying winds and low rainfall resulted in a poor harvest and withered cacao pods — a preview of how cocoa will respond to a drier, hotter world.

Other major threats to cacao trees are pests and diseases, which already account for 30 to 40 percent in annual cocoa losses. In 2018, for instance, the Côte d’Ivoire had to destroy 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of cocoa trees to stop the spread of swollen-shoot virus, an infection that can decrease yields by up to 70 percent and kill a tree within two to three years. Scientists predict that climate change-related weather patterns could increase the incidence of pests and diseases and further threaten cocoa harvests — and the people who depend on it.

The average cocoa farmer earns $.50-$1.25 USD per day, keeping them impoverished and fueling child labor  

While the chocolate industry is worth more than $100 billion dollars (and growing), more than 80 percent of cocoa comes from 7 to 8 million small family farms who can barely afford basic necessities. “Smallholder cocoa farmers also have virtually no control over global market prices and are at the mercy of price volatility,” according to the Fairtrade Foundation. “Inequality in the cocoa chain means farmers are trapped in extreme poverty and can’t afford to invest in more progressive farming methods.”

Cocoa farmers in the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana — thought to be responsible for about 60 percent of the world’s cocoa — earn only 3 percent to 6 percent of a chocolate bar’s retail value. That puts their average income between $0.50–$1.25 USD per day — well below the international poverty line, or less than $1.90 per day.

And even though the amount of farmable land continues to shrink and farmers’ costs have risen, their incomes have stayed the same. In fact, cocoa farmers in the West African cocoa belt are poorer now than they were in the 1970s and 80s. “Seventy-five percent of the people in the Côte d’Ivoire rely on chocolate, or cacao, for their livelihood,” Thompson explains. “With today’s chocolate prices, we ensure that they will remain poor forever.”

These financial pressures have led to abusive labor practices. “Child trafficking generally occurs when planters are searching for cheaper sources of labor for replanting,” writes Michael E. Odijie, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, in The Conversation. “The number of child laborers in the Ivorian cocoa industry increased by almost 400,000 between 2008 and 2013.”

The major chocolate brands have pledged to eliminate child labor and slavery in their supply chains, but in 2019, The Washington Post reported that Hershey, Mars and Nestlé couldn’t guarantee their chocolates were produced without child labor. In fact, The US Department of Labor estimates that 1.48 million children are still “engaged in hazardous work” in Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire. Reports from the University of Chicago research group NORC show that child labor has increased over the past decade despite companies’ pledges. As a result, many children in cocoa communities are working on farms instead of going to school because their families depend on their income.

We consumers have the power to promote industry change by increasing the demand for ethically-produced chocolate  

Chocolate lovers have the purchasing power to push the industry to change, and their first step should be to take a critical look at companies’ labor and sourcing practices. “Capitalism depends on the demand and supply of a product in the food industry,” said Alastair Gower, founder of artisan chocolate maker Chocolate Tree, in a TEDxGlasgowCaledonianUniversity Talk.

In 2018, for example, US-based Mars Wrigley committed $1 billion to funding farming communities and protecting forests over a 10-year period. Similarly, Hershey Co. established Cocoa For Good, a program that aims to eliminate child labor and sustainably source their supplies. However, West African cocoa producers have accused the same companies of using unethical buying practices to avoid paying premiums that would boost farmers’ incomes, keeping farmers in poverty and perpetuating the cycle of child labor.

In addition to buying from chocolate companies that pay cocoa growers living wages, consumers can also protect farmers and their livelihoods by supporting companies that source their beans from sustainable farms. One promising method is agroforestry, or growing cocoa crops under a forest canopy rather than in large plantations of exclusively cacao trees. In agroforestry, cacao is planted amongst other rainforest trees, which provides them with shade, protects them from wind and soil erosion and allows for cultivation without deforestation.

“Cacao trees cultivated in this approach appear less vulnerable to pests, and the soil better retains its ability to support cacao over the long term,” according to the US NOAA. “[Agroforestry] offers one more advantage: Carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared isn’t. It remains stored in the trees.” A 2009 study found that cocoa agroforests in southern Cameroon stored an average of 243 metric tons of carbon per hectare (2.5. acres).

Existing farmland can also be rehabilitated by improving soil health and replacing older trees with new seedlings — but these aren’t silver bullet solutions. “On some farms, even with rehabilitation, renovation and shade trees, cocoa’s days are numbered,” writes University of Edinburgh carbon management professor Dave Reay in the book Climate-Smart Food. “In these drier, already-marginal cocoa areas, many smallholders now grow food crops, such as maize and vegetables, in rotation with their cocoa to supplement incomes.”

But it’s important that environmental initiatives shouldn’t come at the cost of farmers’ livelihoods. For example, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million cocoa farmers live and work in protected forests in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Because new forestry policies that aim to protect these forests will likely result in the forced evictions of thousands of farmers and their families, who are left without shelter, food or education, HRW recommends compensating farmers for lost property and crops and assisting them in finding new occupations.

The next time you’re in the mood for chocolate, here are some tips to help you satisfy your sweet tooth while also looking out for farmers and the planet.

Don’t stop buying chocolate. Millions of people depend on cocoa farming to earn a living, and giving up chocolate will hurt them.

Shop smarter. Look for chocolate that is independently certified by the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade, groups which monitor environmental and labor conditions. By changing your purchasing habits, you’ll also signal to companies that consumers want ethically-produced chocolate.

Get used to paying more for chocolate and eating less. Ethically produced chocolate is more expensive, so you’ll need to change how you view chocolate. Instead of viewing it as a cheap, plentiful commodity, think of it more like a good coffee or wine — something that’s worth paying a little extra for.

Avoid waste. In the UK alone, nearly 20,000 tons (18,000 metric tons) of chocolate and sweets are discarded each year by households, resulting in an estimated 90,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to deforestation.

Do your homework. Check chocolate company websites to see if they list their supply chains — but don’t take their PR and press releases at their word. Websites like The Good Shopping guide, Ethical Consumer and Shop ethical! can help you dig deeper.

“It’s going to take newfound and widespread respect, understanding and appreciation of chocolate to elevate cacao and give its farmers the sustainable and prosperous future that they deserve,” says Thompson. And it can all start with the chocolate that we buy.

Watch Jean Thompson’s TEDxBellevueWomen Talk here: 

Watch Alastair Gower’s TEDxGlasgowCaledonianUniversity Talk here: