Honoring the Gift of Quetzalcoatl: Chocolate and Its Impacts


TWH – A variety of people regularly enjoy chocolate, and it is incorporated into many foods and culinary delights, in addition to being consumed as a simple chocolate bar. Chocolate is more of a food product that requires processing than a food. A complex treatment transforms it from a cocoa bean into a mouthful of sensual pleasure.

Image credit: Alexander Stein Going through Pixabay

Like most food products, the production of chocolate has negative environmental consequences. Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) and Ghana are economically dependent on chocolate production for export. Harm reduction must satisfy two groups: chocolate lovers and cocoa bean workers.

A brief history of chocolate

In 2022, the BBC Science Focus website reported on the history and process of making chocolate.

Originally from the tropical rainforests of the Americas, chocolate was part of the Colombian exchange. This term describes colonial interaction and the exchange of goods and people after Columbus. Chocolate, in this sense, carries heavy karma.

Chocolate begins as a cocoa bean. Archaeologists have found evidence of human use of cocoa as early as 3300 BCE. For the Maya, it was a “thick, foamy and bitter drink”. From 250 to 900 CE, cocoa beans were used as currency.

The Aztecs (1345 to 1521) believed that Quetzalcoatl gave chocolate to humans as gifts and drank cocoa products for aphrodisiac and medicinal purposes.

How is chocolate made?

In nature, chocolate begins inside the pods of a small evergreen tree, Theobroma cacao. Cocoa pods can reach up to 35 cm (13.8 inches) in length.

Cocoa blossoms – Image credit: Björn S. – CC BY-SA 3.0

Once pollinated, the flowers turn into pods which contain the beans. After about six months, the pods ripen and ripen. The pods are harvested by hand by cocoa farm workers, who split the pods open to extract the beans embedded in a sweet, sticky, viscous pulp.

After the pulp and beans are removed from the pods, the beans are fermented. The fermentation process involves either placing the cocoa beans in heaps on dry ground and covering them with banana leaves, or in boxes with drainage holes. The grains are brewed every two days. Fermentation changes the appearance, smell and taste of the beans and takes 6-10 days.

After the fermentation process is complete, farm workers dry the beans in the sun, which are then roasted. Roasting kills microorganisms and also improves flavor. Then the grains are sorted to eliminate sprouted, broken or moldy grains. From there, a cocoa grinder is used to open the beans and separate the shells from the beans. A winnowing machine then removes the lighter husks and dust. What remains is called the “nibs”, the part of the cocoa bean used to make chocolate.

The feathers are ground into a bitter-tasting powder. The Spaniards brought cocoa bean powder to Europe in the 16th century. It was only then that people began to add sugar to the bitter drink of the Aztecs and Mayans.

After this step, the cocoa powder is called “cocoa”. The production process making real chocolate is complex and the quality of the final product depends on many factors.

Cocoa production and environmental impacts

In “Negative environmental externalities within the cocoa, coffee and oil palm value chains in Africaresearcher Priscilla Wainaina, Peter Minang and Judith Nzyoka discuss the environmental impact of chocolate production. They limit their discussion to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. These two countries produce 75% of the world’s total chocolate. Currently, intense cocoa production is causing environmental damage.

Cocoa production employs more than one million farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, about 4% of its population. In Ghana, 800,000 farmers grow cocoa, about 2% of its population. About 90% of agricultural income in Côte d’Ivoire comes from cocoa. In Ghana, about 80% of farm income depends on cocoa.

Cocoa beans and pods – Image credit: Eduardo Calavera – CC BY-SA 4.0

Wainaina, Minang and Nzyoka found four types of negative environmental impacts related to chocolate. These harms include deforestation, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, waste from processing cocoa beans, and the production of greenhouse gases.

The authors identified the four stages of the chocolate life cycle. These four stages are 1) production, 2) processing, 3) distribution and marketing and 4) consumption of chocolate.

Environmental impacts of cocoa farming

Cocoa production provides a necessary cash crop for Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The cultivation of cash crops on agricultural land prevents the cultivation of food crops on that same agricultural land.

As more and more people escape poverty, they want consumer goods like chocolate. This increased the global demand for chocolate.

Cocoa tree with ripening pods – Image credit: Björn S. – CC BY-SA 3.0

This increased demand has led to the clearing of forests to grow cocoa. Between 2000 and 2018, the world’s largest cocoa producer, Côte d’Ivoire, lost 19% of its tree cover. During the same period, Ghana lost 16% of its tree cover. This loss of tree cover killed trees storing carbon dioxide. As dead trees decompose, they release their stored carbon dioxide.

Deforestation reduces the habitats of species. It also displaces communities less powerful than the cocoa industry.

Some growers engage in intensive production technologies rather than tropical open forests. These intensive production technologies make heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, which have known harmful effects on the environment.

Pesticides impact human health through several pathways. First, pesticide residues can contaminate drinking water. Second, pesticides can remain on cocoa beans and end up in human food. Third, when applying pesticides, pesticides may come into contact with human skin. When workers without protective equipment apply pesticides to crops, humans suffer the worst damage.

Growing cocoa beans produces 0.323 tonnes (712.1 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent per tonne (2,204.6 pounds) of chocolate. The term “carbon dioxide equivalent” includes all greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide. The production and use of fertilizers are the source of this production of greenhouse gases.

Environmental impacts in cocoa processing

The workers must ferment the seeds of the cocoa tree. They then have to extract the beans from their pods and husks. These husks constitute about 67% of the weight of fresh pods. One ton (2,204.6 pounds) of moist cocoa beans will produce 50 liters (1.8 cubic feet) of pulp.

In cocoa plantations, this pulp is then evacuated in the form of liquid waste. Processing cocoa into cocoa produces 0.28–1.91 tonnes (617.3–4,210.8 lb) of carbon dioxide equivalent per tonne (2,204.6 lb) of chocolate.

Environmental impacts in the distribution and marketing of cocoa

Globalization requires the transport of goods over long distances. This transport almost always burns fossil fuels which produce greenhouse gases.

Distribution of cocoa beans produces 0.22–0.39 tonnes (485.0–859.8 lb) of carbon dioxide equivalent per tonne (2,204.6 lb) of chocolate.

Environmental impacts of chocolate consumption

Chocolate wrappers produce 0.3 tonnes (661.4 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent per tonne (2,204.6 pounds) of chocolate.

Policies to minimize harm in cocoa production

Agroforestry refers to a set of sustainable practices for intensive cocoa production. The United States Department of Agriculture defines agroforestry as “the intentional integration of trees and trees into crop and livestock systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits”.

Under agroforestry, the farmer has many streams of income from different crops. As agroforestry increases tree cover, it increases the absorption of greenhouse gases. Among other benefits, it also promotes biodiversity.

A zero deforestation pledge occurs when a cocoa farmer publicly commits to respecting forest boundaries.

NGOs or governments monitoring cocoa farms for sustainability issue sustainability certifications. Some groups will also certify fair labor practices. Unfair labor practices are another harm associated with cocoa production.

Some certifying groups will pay cocoa farmers a premium over the market price of cocoa. Currently, cocoa farmers do not receive a “living wage” at market value.

Governments can enact regulations to limit the use of pesticides. Governments can also require improvements in waste handling during processing.

These policies could reduce the environmental damage caused by cocoa production. People don’t have to give up chocolate, but they might have to pay more. The economies of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana could develop cocoa as a cash crop for export. Ethical chocolate consumers, however, should advocate for the enactment and enforcement of sustainable policies.


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