Chocolate and Conservation

Exposing the True Nature of Chocolate

04-01-2003 // Michael Lipske

IF PAST STATISTICS are any measure, Americans may eat more than three billion pounds of chocolate this year. In the next few weeks alone, more than 60 million chocolate bunnies will go on sale in this country for Easter, and millions more chocolate candies will roll off the assembly lines in time for Mother's Day. None of them, it turns out, could be made or sold without a little help from Mother Nature. "A tiny fly no bigger than the head of a pin is responsible for the world's supply of chocolate," says Allen Young, a leading cacao expert and curator of zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Every piece of chocolate we eat starts out as seeds found within football-shaped green, yellow or red pods that grow from cacao trees. Theobroma cacao, the source of cocoa and chocolate, is a native of Central and South American rain forests. Cacao was, in fact, the name for the tree used by ancient Mayans who cultivated the plant and concocted beverages of foaming chocolate more than 1,000 years before the first European explorers arrived in the New World.

In pollination studies conducted during the past decade in Costa Rica, Young has discovered that midges—tiny flies that live in dense, Neotropical rain forests—are crucial to the perpetuation of cacao trees. That's because the flies are the only creatures that can work their way into the small, convoluted flowers the trees grow. Without the pollination functions the midges perform, the seedpods would not become fertilized. And without the seeds, chocolate would become an endangered product. "As rain forests are cleared, we are losing the pollinators that live in them, and that could have dire consequences," notes NWF senior biologist Gabriela Chavarria, a pollinator expert.

Today, cacao is cultivated in equatorial countries worldwide, frequently in open plantations rather than beneath a forest canopy, as it was originally grown. As a result, cacao farming in many areas has created a host of environmental problems. Roughly a third of the world crop is lost every year due to plant pests and diseases. Growers in Asia have fought back with fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, resulting in "a tremendous loss of biodiversity and contaminated waters and soils," says Joe Whinney, founder of Organic Commodity Project, Inc. (OCP), a Massachusetts-based buyer and seller of organic cocoa. In West Africa, vast areas of rain forest have been replaced by cacao planations, as well as coffee and other tree crops. Ultimately, much of the land ends up as pasture. "It's a terrible cycle that is not slowing down," says Whinney.

He and some other experts believe, however, that the cycle can be broken. Grown wisely, cacao—more than most other crops—has the potential to help preserve tropical forests and biodiversity while providing a living for small-scale farmers.

Like shade-grown coffee, cacao grown in the traditional manner under a sheltering canopy of taller rain forest trees provides winter habitat for dozens of bird species that migrate between the United States and Latin America. In 1994, scientists in Brazil even discovered a previously unknown species of ovenbird, dubbed the pink-legged graveteiro, on shade-grown cacao farms in the state of Bahia. The natural forest that the pink-legged graveteiro evolved in "is extremely close to being wiped out," says Bret Whitney, an American ornithologist who has studied the species. Without cacao, he adds, the bird "would be extinct."

Most of the world's cacao is still grown on small farms and many of America's large chocolate companies have come to understand that with cacao production, small can definitely be beautiful. The World Cocoa Foundation, established by the chocolate companies in 2000, has declared its mission to be "improving the standard of living of cocoa farmers around the world by providing training on low-cost methods to produce quality cocoa in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner."

"The industry now definitely gets it," says Whinney, who has allied his company with the World Cocoa Foundation. For evidence, Whinney points to "one tiny piece" of what he believes could be cacao's "hopeful environmental future."

It's a project being conducted by the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana with help from the World Cocoa Foundation. Seeds from the neem tree (a native Indian species with documented natural pesticide properties) are collected, dried, crushed and mixed with water. This neem slurry is then sprayed on cacao trees to kill capsid beetles, a serious cacao pest in West Africa. The natural pesticide apparently causes no harm to pollinators and other beneficial insects. Ideally, the project will enable Ghanian farmers to harvest more cacao pods from their trees, thus increasing their income and reducing their need to clear more forest.

Many cacao growers have long been frustrated by the fact that only one to three percent of the hundreds of flowers on a cacao tree bear fruit. In the plantations, says Young "you tend to have this discrepancy between flower production and fruit set. We think the whole dynamic of pollination is disrupted in a plantation habitat."

If that's bad news for plantation operators, it's yet another argument for growing cacao on farms tucked in and around natural rain forests rather than clearing the forests to make room for agriculture. "We have a project now in Costa Rica looking at what kind of canopy cover provides the best pollination in cacao trees," says Young. Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the long-term study will examine the role of cacao farms in maintaining biodiversity. "We think cacao is a good candidate for a model of saving biodiversity while providing small farmers with a diversified revenue stream." The scientist explains that farmer income could flow not just from cacao but also from fruit trees and even selective timber cutting.

It seems too good to be true: Save rain forests and satisfy candy cravings. But as Young says, "Cacao has a lot going for it."

For more information about both chocolate and pollinators, including links for buying environmentally sound products, see www.nwf.org/chocolate. Writer Michael Lipske lives in Washington, D.C.

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