For years, ‘sustainable chocolate’ has been a buzzword in the food industry. The term ‘sustainable’ is used to describe anything environmentally friendly and without affecting future generations. Although, sustainable cocoa farming may not actually be sustainable in any way. This article will explore this further and if cocoa farms can become more sustainable in the future!
What is cocoa farming and how it affects our environment
Cocoa farming is a system of sustainable agricultural activities that have been practiced in the tropics for centuries. Even with new sustainable and organic certifications, there has been no discussion on cocoa farming and its environmental impact.
With rich soil and high rainfall, Western Africa is one of the best areas on Earth to grow cocoa beans, but all too often, this land is deforested to make way for plantations. Deforestation may seem like a necessary evil if it improves production yields (ie. more trees can be grown back than were cut down), but this is not always the case; replanting does not always work sufficiently to replace lost habitat.
The deforested land’s soil quality can be poor, causing new plants to struggle to take root. There are attempts to replant cocoa trees on steep hillsides but because of this poor soil, landslides occur during the rainy season and further destroy the land. This leads to river sedimentation (where important or sensitive aquatic habitats can be lost) or to flooding of local communities. To mitigate these serious environmental issues would require costly budgets.
Sustainable farming is about more than just good agricultural practices. It is about healthy supply chains. This farming is healthy when it provides a fair wage to farmers without the need for subsidies and requires minimal use of fertilizers or pesticides which cause harm to the environment.
The environmental impacts of cocoa farming
The three major issues facing sustainable cocoa production are deforestation, climate change, and disease control. Deforestation is caused by poor land management of growing cacao trees, and by commercial logging operations.
In addition, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are significantly due to the deforestation of traditional cocoa-growing areas.
Farmers cut down trees to plant their crops, eliminating competition from surrounding plants and animals that may take away water or nutrients from the soil needed for growing cacao beans. This can cause erosion, which again increases the amount of sediment in waterways and reduces water supplies. The nutrients left behind from deforestation can also severely pollute rivers and streams.
Cacao farmers face another major issue- ‘black pod rot’, a cocoa tree disease that causes farmers to lose around 60% of their crop yield each year. Many farmers in Western Africa and Central America are then forced to abandon sustainable farming practices such as shade-grown cacao for less sustainable options.
The multitude of problems in the current ‘sustainable’ cocoa farming is disastrous for our environment, and a solution is immediately needed for healthier production. To have healthy production, environmental protection, and economic prosperity for farmers, all aspects of the process must be done responsibly (from growing the beans to making chocolate products).
Cacao farming is a rigorous and labour-intensive process. It takes a great deal of time and effort to produce the beans that make up our favourite chocolate bars. When we purchase from organizations like Hershey’s or Nestlé, it can be easy for us to turn a blind eye to how much work goes into them, because of these organizations’ relatively low price point.
However, with understanding where your lower-priced chocolate comes from now, you may find yourself considering whether the cheaper option is worth it over choosing to support sustainable practices of farmers who can help preserve this beautiful landscape for years to come.