Chocolate and Valentine’s Day seem like a match made in heaven but, in terms of environmental sustainability, how long can this relationship last?

Humanity’s long love affair with chocolate has a rich history and the world’s sweet tooth keeps chomping at the bit for more. Unfortunately, this means that there could be a one-million-ton cocoa shortage by 2020, based on the projected increase in demand and shortage in supply due to, among other things, climate change. In response, manufacturers are exploring avenues to make chocolate more sustainable – and chocolate lovers should be paying attention.

According to the World Cocoa Foundation, 73% of the world’s cocoa is from Africa, particularly from the top-cocoa-producing countries of Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria. The cacao tree – from which cocoa is derived – only grows 18 degrees north and south of the equator and prefers rich, well-drained soils.

Cacao trees also need heat and humidity to thrive. While these conditions are ideal for the Cacao trees, they’re also ideal for pest and fungal problems that often cause crop losses costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year, which, in turn, affect the livelihoods of the 40-50 million people who depend on the crop. Farming in the tropics is further complicated by climate change, which is increasing the occurrence of floods, droughts and windstorms in growing areas.

In response to the challenges faced by the cacao tree, researchers at Mars, Incorporated are exploring and leading the global efforts to protect the multi-billion dollar chocolate industry. As part of the global response, researchers at Mars have sequenced the cacao genome and have identified a gene variant that may aid in breeding hardier trees.

The Cocoa Livelihoods Program provides educational programs to help farmers create a more efficient supply chain. The program also promotes crop diversification, since cacao trees grow best in the partial shade of rainforests. This may lead to increased conservation efforts to protect the rainforests around the world that store carbon and help regulate climate change.

This would also help reduce the carbon footprint of cocoa, the third most-traded agricultural product after coffee and sugar, according to the Rainforest Alliance. Other ways chocolate producers are reducing their carbon footprint include using cocoa bean shells as a fuel source, certification by the Rainforest Alliance and going organic in a pesticide-heavy industry.

Time will tell if these approaches are as sweet as they seem, and how they will impact biodiversity and local cacao-farming communities in the long run. 

Alas, like love, the world of chocolate is complicated. Even with some manufacturers striving to be more environmentally sustainable, it is not possible for cocoa to be locally sourced unless you live and consume chocolate near the cocoa-producing regions of the world.

Additionally, true fair trade programs haven’t reached all chocolate manufacturers and child labour is alarmingly prevalent in cocoa production, even when fair trade certification is present. While some manufacturers have promised to source cocoa ethically, real changes may only come in the year 2020, which is also when global cocoa shortages are expected.

Whether chocolate manufacturers will stay true to their word or succumb to the global demand for cocoa is yet to be seen, but organizations like UNICEF and STOP THE TRAFFIK will be watching. 

In the end, your relationship with certain chocolate manufacturers may come down to shared values and it will be up to you to decide if it’s a relationship worth pursuing.

Sharing her adventures and reflections in the food movement, Jo Anne explores complex food issues from a youth perspective, including the need for an innovative, integrated, empowerment-focused approach to food security and the connections between social justice, environmental issues and food production.

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