The Dark Side of Chocolate

May 23, 2024

Chocolate does not need an introduction – it’s one of the most popular foods in the world. The cocoa bean (technically a seed) from the cacao tree was first domesticated over 5000 years ago, was used as a currency in Mesoamerica (Middle America in Greek) and can only be grown in the region around 20° north and south of the equator. Chocolate contains a chemical compound known to increase dopamine levels in the areas of our brain responsible for pleasure and reward. Eating too much chocolate – blame science!

A short history.

Cocoa originated in the Solimões (upper Amazon River) region in South America. The cocoa tree’s clever name, Theobroma cacao comes from the Greek theos (god) and broma (food) inspiring the phrase ‘Chocolate, food of the gods’. There is evidence indicating that for a long time before the cocoa bean was adopted and popularized the pulp of the cocoa fruit was used to make a fermented drink.

The Portuguese were reputed to have planted cacao trees on the island of São Tomé off the west coast of Africa as far back as 1822 and in 1870 a Ghanaian farmer, Tetteh Quarshie travelled to Bioko (an Equatorial Guinea island) returning to Ghana in 1876 with cacao seeds. West Africa is now the largest producer of cocoa beans with around 70% coming from Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon – more than 50% coming from Ghana and Ivory Coast alone.

Cocoa farming impact on the environment.

Many cocoa farmers live in poverty and therefore are not able to pay much attention to the environmental consequences. For decades, the virgin forests have been destroyed by logging companies followed closely by cocoa farmers encroaching on the land and even with forests being protected by many governments, deforestation is still a major problem in West Africa. Intensive cocoa farming can degrade the soil reducing the fertility over time – this becomes a destructive cycle of soil degradation, leading to the requirement for fresh land. This causes stress on the cacao trees resulting in lower yields, which in turn drives the same damaging cycle.

If global temperatures continue to rise, West Africa will become unsuitable for growing cocoa beans and over the next 20 years should expect a decline in cocoa production as temperatures rise even further.

How sustainable is cocoa?

To mitigate the environmental risks, sustainable farming practices such as organic farming and agroforestry (integration of trees with crops) are being promoted. Including shade trees with cocoa plants provides heat protection and minimizes soil erosion, resulting in species diversity.

Voluntary certifications including Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are aimed at differentiating conventional and sustainable cocoa farming, but these certification programs often have high initial costs becoming a barrier to small famers. The larger farms tend to benefit more from these programs with benefits such as greater productivity, reduced usage of chemicals and improved conservation – resulting in better living conditions for the famers.

Cacao seeds evolved to grow in the shade of a rainforest, therefore the planting of fruit trees will help the growth of cocoa by providing shade and oxygen replenishment, not to mention the additional income to the famer for the fruit produced by these shade cover trees.

The darker side of chocolate.

Approximately 2 million children in Ghana and Ivory Coast work on cocoa farms with many of them exposed to labour practices that are likely to cause harm to their health, safety, or morals. With the intense level of poverty in Western Africa many children start working at an early age to support their families and often with the involvement of traffickers purchasing or abducting children they end up on cocoa farms. These children will not see their families for years and some may never see their families again as they were sold by the traffickers to work for a specified number of years.

These vulnerable children are forced to work for 12 hours per day, made to use dangerous equipment such as chainsaws and machetes and climb trees that can reach up to 12 metres in height. After cutting the bean pods from the trees they must pack and carry sacks weighing over 40 kilograms.

On a more upbeat note…

A few interesting chocolate facts:

  • Milk chocolate was invented in 1875 by Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter. Apparently, eager to impress a young lady he added powdered milk to dark chocolate to reduce the bitterness.
  • The most expensive chocolate in the world is made in Ecuador by To’ak Chocolate from rare cacao beans and is matured for 8 years. Nearly R9 000 for a 50g bar!
  • In the 1400s Montezuma II, Aztec emperor of Mexico drank 50 cups of the chocolate elixir a day – produced from cacao confiscated during his conquests.
  • White chocolate is not technically a chocolate. Since it does not contain cocoa solids, it is not considered ‘real’ chocolate.
  • In 1847, Joseph Fry created the first chocolate bar by mixing a paste with a higher percentage of cocoa butter making it easier to mould into a solid bar.
  • Switzerland has the highest per capita chocolate consumption at around 12 kg per person whilst China only consumes around 200g per person. Seems not everyone loves chocolate.

Final words.

Due to the declining cocoa production prices have more than doubled in the last 2 years and some major cocoa plants in Ivory Coast and Ghana have stopped or reduced processing as they cannot afford to buy beans. Chocolate makers cannot produce chocolate with raw cocoa as they rely on processing plants to turn the beans into cocoa butter that is then made into chocolate.

If you’re a chocolate lover, you would have noticed significant price increases in the last couple of years and with the International Cocoa Organisation estimating a 10% drop in the world’s harvest, we should be expecting increased chocolate prices and possibly shortages.

I am sure that will not make any difference to a chocoholic – as Peanuts cartoonist, Charles M Schulz said “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

Warrick Asher

May 2024

General Manager – Business Development, BarnOwl GRC.