The Bitter Price of Chocolate

Written by: Rachel Simone & Shai Davis

Artwork by: Mac Davenport

While chocolate is a tasty candy and enjoyed by many people around the world, the impact of its production is rather bitter. Remarkably, the majority of people in Western countries consume between 9 and 20 lbs of the delicious treat per year. With that only making up a fraction of the increasing global chocolate consumption, it is important to look at the cocoa industry’s history of human trafficking, child labor, environmental harm, and contributions to climate change. Fortunately, many growing and innovative companies are working towards solutions for these concerns.

The Environmental Impact of Chocolate

According to World WildLife, 70% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown on farms located in West Africa, with the majority in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. These farms are major contributors to deforestation due to the increasingly high demand for chocolate. In fact, in the last 50 years, the Ivory Coast has lost more than 70% of its forests. This loss is because with the high demand, cocoa has turned into a mass industry with monocultural agriculture practices. Instead of thriving under the cover of their natural rainforests, the cocoa trees are planted in direct sun, requiring 24,000 liters of water to produce roughly 2.2 lbs of cocoa, in order to produce larger yields and boost profits. It is astonishing that West Africa, namely the Ivory Coast, was once known for its great biodiversity. Now, many of the region’s native species are extinct, with many others soon to follow.

Additionally, deforestation contributes significantly to climate change due to the emissions of greenhouse gases. Tropical forests, like those found near the equator in West Africa, absorb 1.4 billion out of the 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 30% are anthropogenic, or human generated, emissions. David Schimel, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also stated that the “uptake in boreal forests is already slowing, while tropical forests may continue to take up carbon for many years.” While this trend of tropical forests being the main absorber of carbon has the potential to continue, the sweeping deforestation will reduce the extent of this absorption dramatically. At both a local and global level, these forests are necessary to help communities by regulating temperatures and cleaning the air. As their forests have decreased, and emissions increased, the Ivory Coast has seen exceptionally warmer temperatures and rising sea levels. If the effects of climate change are allowed to keep growing to the extreme, the displacement and loss of life, as well as the economic cost, will grow with them.

The Labor Problem

The second significant problem with the production of chocolate is the heavy use of child labor and human trafficking. Some of the most notable chocolate company giants are unable to account for where their cocoa comes from. According to an article from the Washington Post, Mars Inc., which manufacturers many favorite chocolate treats like M&M’s and Snickers, can only identify where 24% of its chocolate comes from, and Nestle can only trace back 49%. A 2020 U.S. Department of Labor report found that the use of child labor on cocoa farms has increased in recent years, presumably due to the growing demand of chocolate. As of 2021, approximately 1,600,000 children are known to be forced to work on cocoa farms. Many of these children (some as young as five) are trafficked and forced to work in dangerous conditions, such as exposure to agrochemical products (pesticides and fertilizers), sharp tools (machetes to cut cocoa pods), and long night shifts. On top of all the pain endured, these chocolate farmers are barely paid. Many chocolate companies do not pay the farmers directly, so the farmers instead end up receiving a slim income from a middleman.

Despite the public knowing of these issues, many defend their favorite sweets companies. Some even decide to disassociate themselves from the problem. As recently as June 2021, Nestle and Cargill chocolate giants faced the United States Supreme Court. However, it was found that they could not be sued for the “slavery” in West Africa, even though “they decided on the budgets, they decided on the planning, on the business aspects – all those things were done from the US.”

Company Highlights: The Advocacy of Endangered Species Chocolate

Founded in 1993, Endangered Species Chocolate is the first of the two highlighted companies in this section. This chocolate does get its cocoa from West Africa, but it was the first company to do so through being Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance Certified, meaning that their farms “promote social, economic, and environmental standards for sustainable agriculture.” With their 100% traceable cocoa, the company works to support its local farmers by maintaining fair pay and good working conditions, along with helping to form health centers and schools. The standard Fairtrade premium added to the price of the bars is given directly back to the small farming organizations that “democratically determine” how to invest them. 64% of the premium has been recorded to be used to meet the needs of the small farmers’ families.

Ethical labor practices is not the only change in the chocolate industry that ESC pursues. They also aim to protect the environment and cultivate wildlife diversity. As could be guessed by the name, this company has a large focus on conservation and bringing awareness to species endangered of going extinct. With each new flavor of chocolate, the wrapper features a new endangered species. In addition to the wrapper having a themed pattern after its species, the consumer is able to read all about and see pictures, maps, and diagrams of their species on the inside too. Their chocolate is also predominantly vegan and Green-e Certified, meaning they follow a standard for clean and renewable energy in their production. To go a step further, 10% of the annual profits are donated to various conservation organizations, such as the National Forest Foundation, every year. Since 2016, ESC has donated over $2.6 billion to these focused organizations and over $500,000 just in 2020. Included in their 2020 Impact Report, Endangered Species Chocolate has set their sights on a goal to increase this number to $1 million annual donations by 2027.

Company Highlights: The Innovation of QOA Chocolate

Looking towards the future, a leader who has recently emerged in the game of chocolate as of August 2021 is the QOA Chocolate Company. ‘QOA’ is a play on the ending pronunciation of the word ‘cocoa.’ In the creation of this new company, its founders sought to research and create a type of synthetic chocolate that tastes and has the same rich consistency as true chocolate. This comes with one main ambition, though: the chocolate does not contain any cocoa or dairy products. Alternatively, the chocolate is made using a certain fermentation process with specific chains of yeast and 100% natural food waste, such as from pea pods, potato peels, or oats. All of these ingredients change the recipe of the chocolate based on the regions it is being produced in to adapt to the specified flavors and food waste available in the areas. In turn, this regional approach works to save on expenses and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the rate of deforestation and use of transportation in exports, as well as creating local jobs rather than human trafficking and using child labor. QOA Chocolate aims to implement a sustainable alternative in mass markets to decrease the demand of the current cocoa supply chain and to bring an optimistic change to the long lasting tastes and traditions of one of the most loved sweets around the globe.

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