All trick, no treat?

The high price of harvesting cocoa for chocolate

  • Julia Jeanty
  • Sustainable Agriculture
  • Oct 09, 2021

Forests in Côte d’Ivoire (above) are being cut to make way for cocoa monocropping, harming wildlife, habitats and people. Yet chocolate treats (below) can be grown sustainably in ways that help the planet.

CHOCOLATE IS A HALLMARK of Halloween and other sweet traditions, accounting for more than $20 billion a year in U.S. sales alone. Yet consumers may be unaware that production of chocolate’s key ingredient—cocoa beans—is linked to deforestation, human rights abuses and the biodiversity crisis.

Though cocoa is grown in tropical regions across the globe, roughly two-thirds of production is concentrated in West Africa’s Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where tropical forests are being replaced by cocoa crops. Côte d’Ivoire has lost more than 85 percent of its forest cover since 1960, mainly to keep up with high demand for cocoa.

This deforestation destroys critical wildlife habitat—displacing species such as forest elephants, chimpanzees and pygmy hippos—and releases greenhouse gases. What’s more, cocoa is often cultivated through monocropping—growing a single crop on the same land repeatedly—which depletes the soil and leaves crops susceptible to disease and insect infestation. Thus, farmers often rely on insecticides and fungicides, which further harm wildlife by polluting the air and water. Worse still, human rights abuses—in the form of child labor, poor working conditions, low wages, even slavery—are often linked to cocoa production.

Cocoa beans and chocolate bars.

Thankfully, high-quality, sustainably produced cocoa is within reach for consumers. Shade-grown cocoa agroforestry, where cocoa is grown amongst diverse crops and trees, boosts carbon sequestration and water regulation. It also provides habitat for wildlife such as butterflies, birds and bats. And it can enhance cocoa farmers’ livelihoods because growing multiple crops diversifies farmer income and improves food security.

To help consumers find ethical and environmentally friendly chocolate, the National Wildlife Federation worked with other NGOs to create a chocolate shopping guide, ranking more than 80 percent of global chocolate brands based on their social and environmental performance.

“Consumers have a lot more power to shape markets than they realize,” says Nathalie Walker, senior director of NWF’s Tropical Forests and Agriculture program. “By choosing products that are sustainably sourced, consumers can show global brands they want products that are safe for forests, wildlife and people.”

Julia Jeanty is a former coordinator of NWF’s Tropical Forests and Agriculture program.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

International Wildlife Conservation: Cocoa and Deforestation »
Blog: How a "Smart" Sweet Tooth Can Protect Wildlife »
Get Involved: Live Green »

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