Here in the UK we are the fourth biggest consumers of chocolate in the world but experts estimate that chocolate ranks just below red meat in terms of eco-unfriendly foods. With Easter coming up, we thought we’d look at how we can all help to make chocolate a more environmentally and ethically sustainable treat. First, let’s take a look at why it is so high on the list of things NOT to eat.

On the left are the raw cacao beans, the ones on the right have been roasted

Cacao (the raw product which is roasted to make cocoa before it is turned into chocolate) likes humid, shady climate conditions which is why it is cultivated around the equator, mainly in West Africa, Central and South America. One of the main problems is deforestation – farmers cutting down older trees to make way for planting new mono-crop plantations.  In the Ivory Coast, the largest exporter, 80% of traditional forest has been lost to cacao farming in the last 50 years, leading to the release of carbon-dioxide and driving global warming, and loss of crucial biodiversity.  Shade-loving cacao plants can still fruit in full sun but at a much lower yield and they need much more water, pesticides, and herbicides to thrive (it’s estimated it takes about 1000 litres to produce one chocolate bar). Rising global temperatures will only make this problem worse, perpetuating a vicious cycle. 

This is enough to give chocolate growing a bad name but…three quarters of chocolate eaten in this country is milk chocolate. So, add in a good sprinkling of refined sugar (probably grown as a monocrop in tropical areas, leading to deforestation, climate change etc etc), splash in some unsustainable palm-oil and methane-producing cow’s milk, and finish with protective plastic packaging made from petroleum products and we can begin to understand chocolate’s eco bad-boy label. That’s before we even start to look at the manufacturing processes and transportation.

What about Fairtrade, is it relevant? Definitely! Most farmers are still living below the poverty line, many relying on child and slave labour, and even child-trafficking in some areas. On top of that, cacao farming is highly dangerous and intensive work, often involving machetes, toxic chemicals, and back-breaking physical labour. Although some of the major companies pledged over 20 years ago to end child and slave labour and deforestation practices, the reality is rather different as they mainly rely on small farms in rural Africa resulting in practically untraceable supply chains. In addition, recent changes have meant that only 20% of ingredients must be Fairtrade to receive Fairtrade status, compared to 50% before. Some smaller companies are now choosing to go one step further because of these issues and trade directly with farmers.

Is there any hope for the future of cacao farming?  Yes! Planting cacao under the shady canopy of existing tropical hardwood trees and mixed with other crops has been shown to help improve biodiversity, carbon sequestration and nutrients in the soil as well as making the plants stronger and more resilient to pests and diseases; introducing new pruning and harvesting techniques has helped maximise cropping on existing farmland preventing destruction of the rainforests.

So, what steps can we take to help? Choose dark chocolate over milk or choose vegan milk chocolate that uses plant milks, (dark chocolate is also believed to have many health benefits). Be aware of packaging – avoid small, fun-size bars or packets, Easter Eggs wrapped in foil and packaged in plastic. Consider buying bars not eggs for older children or adults. Seek out companies involved in Direct Trade which have more accountability than Fairtrade. Look out for Rainforest Alliance/UTZ certified brands. Check labels for ingredients -look for chocolate that doesn’t contain palm oil. 

Some of the best eco-friendly and ethical brands: Seed and Bean, Land, and Cacao Crudo (all these use 100% compostable packaging), Divine, Love Cocoa, Willie’s Cacao, Chocolate and Love, Plamil, Traidcraft, Moo Free, Cocoa Loco, Cox and Co, Tony’s Chocolonely, Booja Booja, Montezuma’s and Hotel Chocolat.  Tesco’s own brand chocolate is 100% Rainforest Alliance.

Some to avoid are “Mondelez International” – formerly Cadbury plc, Mars, Ferrero Rocher, Thorntons, Green & Black and particularly Nestle.

Fiona Smith