Eat chocolate, save the planet

Updated: Aug 6



Today is Easter and, like every year and religious questions notwithstanding, chocolate is at the centre of it.

Black, milk, white… with almonds, pistachios, walnuts, berries, vanilla, caramel, etc.


We live in Belgium, one of the best places to be when you love chocolate! Here, chocolate is what it’s meant to be.


Around the world people spend more than $98 billion a year on chocolate.

The demand is on the rise thanks to expanding population size and growing numbers of people in the developing world who can afford chocolate, in fact, demand may be greater than supply in the near future. [1]


But all the food we eat has its own impact on the planet, so it begs the question: “Is eating chocolate bad for the climate?” And thus: “Do I have to feel guilty about loving it?”


1. Our love of chocolate has negative environmental impact on the planet


As much as it hurts for chocolate addicts like us, it can’t be denied: each kind of agriculture comes with a substantial carbon footprint, and chocolate manufacturing is no exception.


1.1 The impact of chocolate manufacturing on the rain forest



The geography of chocolate


Cocoa can only grow within about 20 ° north and south of the equator.


That means that cocoa trees only prosper in conditions where a piece of chocolate will melt.


They need fairly uniform and high temperatures, high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil, and protection from wind.


In one-word, cocoa trees thrive in rain forests.


Historically, much of the world’s cocoa has come from Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia.

But the production expands in South America, in particular in Peru.[2]


The industrial acceleration of cocoa production has two main effects:


  • 1st effect: the deforestation of the rain forest


The Amazon rainforest is becoming a target for cultivable land and already thousands of hectares of carbon-rich, biodiverse forest have been turned into monocultures.


Within the last 10 years, countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria have also seen significant deforestation in their cocoa-producing regions as plantations spread.[3]


  • 2nd effect: Global warming


The above-mentioned countries will experience a 2.1 °C increase in temperature by 2050 and a marked reduction in suitable cultivation area.[4]

1.2 The water demand of producing chocolate


It takes an astonishing 24000 l of water to produce 1 kg of chocolate.[5]

By comparison, 1 kg of beef requires 15000 l and 1 kg of cheese needs 5000 l of water to be produced.[5]


When you know that more than 2.3 billion people live in areas where water is scarce, this is alarming.[6]


1.3 The carbon footprint of manufacturing & eating chocolate



Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay


Chocolate production requires energy at every step of the production such as heating, cooling, not to mention transport, distribution, storage and post-consumption waste.


All these processes and activities produce greenhouse gas emissions.


Studies show that 49 g of chocolate generate 169 g of CO2 emissions.

That means for a country like UK, which consumes 10.10 kg of chocolate per capita per annum,[7] everybody generates an average of 35 kg of CO2 emissions. Just by eating some chocolate.


At the scale of the country this is two million metric tons of CO2 emissions![8]


This is as much as it would be produced by a city the size of Belfast in Northern Ireland![9]


Unsurprisingly, the researchers found the most environmentally problematic chocolate products to be the packaging — large bags of individually wrapped candies — since excessive packaging carries a larger carbon footprint.


The global warming effect of the industrial production of chocolate is not to be ignored:

Global warming potential (GWP) of chocolate ranges from 2.9–4.2 kg CO2 eq./kg.
Land-use change associated with cocoa production increases total GWP by 3–4 times.[6]


2. Our love of chocolate has negative societal & economic impact on the planet



Image by Ashutosh Goyal from Pixabay


In recent years, some organizations and journalists have exposed the common use of child labour, and slavery, on cocoa farms in Western Africa.[10]


Since then, it has been difficult for reporters to not only access farms where human rights violations still occur, but to then disseminate this information to the public.



3. Loving chocolate and wanting to protect the environment is not mutually exclusive


Image: Taras Young,CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons



Did you know that:


The majority (>70%) of the worldwide cocoa is produced by small farmers using largely low input, low intensity agricultural techniques.[11]


These small farmers usually grow cocoa with respect to the environment as very often they cannot afford chemicals to treat plant diseases or combat pests.

As a result, a great deal of cocoa is produced organically.


In Ecuador many of the cocoa growing areas show great biodiversity, as farmers grow a variety of agricultural products as a form of risk management in order to deal with the effects of market fluctuations, floods, droughts, diseases, etc.


In Brazil, a new species of bird was discovered on a cocoa farm in 1994.[12]


So, as usual, the problem is excess.


It’s mainly large-scale commercial cocoa production that harms the environment


Clearing of the forests for intensive cocoa production on large plantations can result in destruction of ecosystems which take a long time to regenerate.


Intensive large-scale cocoa production can also result in reductions in biodiversity and soil fertility, soil erosion, stream sedimentation and health and environmental problems associated with agrochemical application and run-off.


4. Solutions to be more sustainable

4.1 Environmental sustainability

There already exists a number of farming techniques that could boost the productivity of existing cocoa farms, reducing the need for clearing more forests.



Cabroca cocoa forest — Photo by Dengo | Cacau do Brasil


For example, in Brazil, Cabruca agroforest [13], a way of cultivating cocoa, which implies planting taller trees, to get use of the shadow they procure, could help decrease temperature, the soil dryness and be key in the conservation of forest tree species.


Not to forget providing protection from wind and soil erosion, and nutrient-rich leaf litter.


Cacao trees cultivated in this approach appear less vulnerable to pests, and the soil retains its ability to support cacao over longer periods.


Cabruca offers one more advantage: CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared remains stored in the trees.


A study conducted in southern Cameroon and published in 2018 found that inside the cocoa agroforests of Southern Cameroon, associated plants store around 70% of the carbon; on average 243 metric tons per hectare.[14]


By way of comparison, in 2016, statistically each person on Earth released 4.79 tons of CO2.[15]


4.2 Economic sustainability


Cocoa farmers are already seeing the impacts of climate change and if we don’t take action, current cocoa-producing regions may no longer be suitable for cocoa production in less than three decades.


Climate change, combined with unsustainable farming techniques, has caused a crisis in cocoa production — in fact, some regions have already been rendered totally unsuitable for growing cocoa. Longer dry seasons and less rainfall, as well as new pests and diseases can reduce yields and quality, which translates into reduced income for farmers and their families.


When access to ownership of lands and financial issues are surmounted, however, farmers are very much inclined to grow sustainable cacao trees.


With access to finance they can replace older trees with more resilient hybrids and improve their livelihood.


To conclude:

Do not stop eating chocolate, just be aware of what you can do to make it sustainable!


The darker the chocolate, the better it is for the environment, as milk-based products are carbon footprint intensive.[16]
Discover the flavours of single-source cocoa, this is gourmet chocolate that will increase the fortune of small producers.[17]
Avoid individually wrapped candies or chocolate bars to reduce waste.
Go away from industrially produced chocolate, but if you can’t, read their sustainability report, to make sure they make effort towards a neutral CO2 footprint.
Be aware of brands and products which are actively acting against child labour and paying the farmers a fair price.


Happy Easter everyone!




References

[1] https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180421005040/en/Top-Factors-Driving-Chocolate-Market-Europe-Technavio

[2] https://www.cocoaweb.net/countries.html

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/av/business-37585470/cocoa-farming-threatens-rainforests-in-ivory-coast

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability report

[5] https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Hoekstra-2008-WaterfootprintFood.pdf

[6] Water scarcity clock

[7] http://www.topito.com/top-10-des-pays-ou-on-mange-le-plus-de-chocolat-par-habitant

[8] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2018.02.042

[9] https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/chocolate-big-cravings-and-even-bigger-carbon-footprint.htm

[10] http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_8583000/8583499.stm

[11] https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/research/cocoa/matlick.cfm

[12] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294238480_A_new_genus_and_species_of_furnariid_aves_Furnariidae_from_the_cocoa-growing_region_of_southeastern_Bahia_Brazil

[13] https://DOI 10.1007/s10531–012–0240–3

[14] https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-7650-3_30

[15] CO2 emissions counter

[16] https://doi.org/10.1021/es702969f

[17] https://www.eco-business.com/news/how-the-rise-of-gourmet-chocolate-can-lift-the-fortunes-of-small-farmers/

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