Earth-Friendly Chocolate

Earth Talk

Dear EarthTalk: I heard a reference to “Earth-friendly chocolate” and was wondering about what goes into chocolate that would raise environmental concerns.
--Ben Moran, Providence, RI

Like coffee beans, the cacao seeds from which we derive chocolate can only be grown successfully in equatorial regions--right where the world's few remaining tropical rainforests thrive. As worldwide demand for chocolate grows, so does the temptation among growers to clear more and more rainforest to accommodate high-yield monocultural (single-crop) cacao tree plantations. What are left are open, sunny fields with dramatically lower levels of plant and animal diversity. Adding environmental insult to injury, most cacao plantations use copious amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides that further degrade the land that once teemed with a wide variety of rare birds, mammals and plants.

Another problem with chocolate production, although not specifically an environmental concern, is the conditions endured by workers that pick and process the cacao seeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture has documented some 284,000 children between the ages of nine and 12 working in hazardous conditions on West African cacao farms. In Africa's Ivory Coast, for example, where more than 40 percent of the world's cacao is grown, underage cacao workers are routinely overworked, performing often-dangerous farming tasks in a setting that some liken to slavery. As a result of these and other related injustices, so-called "fair trade" advocates have targeted large producers of cacao to improve working conditions and pay living wages that allow workers to get their kids out of the fields and into school.

Some cacao farmers have enlisted the help of scientists and environmental groups to find ways to produce chocolate more fairly and more sustainably. The nonprofit Rainforest Alliance, which works on similar issues with coffee growers, is now partnering with cacao growers in Ecuador to develop environmentally and socially responsible cacao production and processing standards. The standards seek to maintain critical conservation areas, reduce pressures to convert more forestland to cacao plantations, and provide social and economic benefits to local communities. As a result, some 2,000 cacao growers in five Ecuadorian communities have now formed cooperatives that help find new markets for their products while overseeing adherence to fair labor standards and environmental protection measures. Rainforest Alliance hopes to expand the program to other cacao growing regions of the world in the coming years.

Those looking to get their hands on some organically grown fair trade chocolate have more options than ever before. Leading brands include Dagoba, Endangered Species Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Green & Black's, Sjaak's, Sunspire, Terra Nostra Divine, Theo, Sweet Earth, and Yachana Gourmet. Actor Paul Newman has gotten in on the act, too, with his Newman's Own brand. Like Newman's Own, many of the companies donate money to environmental and other nonprofit efforts. Whole Foods and other natural foods retailers stock many of these brands, which are also available via various Internet-based retailers including Global Exchange's Fair Trade Online Store.

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
Global Exchange's Fair Trade Online Store

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Anhata's picture

Your organization can be a part of the Fair Trade solution by selling fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and cocoa as a fundraiser.

Our church is participating in the UCC Coffee Project (a collaboration between Equal Exchange and the UCC) whereby our Social Action team arranges the purchase of coffee, tea, chocolate, and cocoa at near-wholesale prices (if you order four or more cases, shipping is free) and sell it on Sundays. We put a slight markup on each item and that little bit of profit goes into our general fund. Lest it seem like this is a marginal thing, let me share that our little bitty congregation bought over a $1000 of fair trade products from July to December of last year.

Although there are many churches that have interfaith collaborations with Equal Exchange (Lutheran, Catholic, Unitarian, Methodist, Quaker, Church of the Bretheren, and so on) you don't have to be a church to participate. They market fundraisers to school groups and other organizations, too. (Do note: Chocolate is not available for fundraising in the summer, since it will melt during shipment if the temperature is over 75F degrees.)

There are several companies besides Equal Exchange that your organization coordinate fundraisers with. Yachana Gourmet, Global Exchange, and Just Coffee to name a few.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable; with the possible exception of a moose singing "Embraceable You" in spats.

-- Woody Allen

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