chocolate and cocoa beans2

Chocolate and cocoa beans

Beloved by many, chocolate is a daily staple in many individuals’ lives, but not many are aware of its origins.  According to the International Cocoa Organization, “Archaeological evidence in Costa Rica indicates that cacao was drunk by Maya traders as early as 400 BC. The Aztec culture, dominant in Mesoamerica from the fourteenth century to the Conquest, placed much emphasis on the sanctity of cacao. The first outsider to drink chocolate was Christopher Columbus, who reached Nicaragua in 1502 searching for a sea route to the spices of the East.” (1)

Much of the chocolate our society consumes comes from cocoa in tropical areas around the world.  Cocoa is mostly produced in countries between 10ºN and 10ºS of the Equator, where the climate is appropriate for growing cocoa trees (2). Cocoa seeds are fermented, roasted, grounded, and combined with other ingredients to make the sweet taste of chocolate that have all come to know and love (3).

deforestation climate change due to cocoa production2

Deforestation/climate change due to cocoa production:

Unfortunately, the growth, extraction, and transportation of cocoa farming have had serious consequences on deforestation, biodiversity, and climate change (4). Cocoa farming requires hundreds of thousands of acres of land. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the methods in which these lands are made more suitable for modern agricultural farming is very damaging to the environment.  The two ways in which cocoa farms are established are through either selective cutting or the slash and burn method. Even though the selective cutting method is much less invasive and damaging to the environment, most farms are established through the slashing and burning method (5,6). The slash and burn method is when the natural vegetation of the area is cut down and the remains are burned as a way to clear the land for farming. This method leads to a large amount of carbon dioxide and harmful particulates being released from the burning of all the plant and animal life found in that particular area. In fact, the practice of converting tropical rainforests into agricultural land accounts for a significant share of annual greenhouse gas emissions due to land use change (7).

cocoa farmers on the ivory coast

Cocoa farmers on the ivory coast:

Another thing we find concerning with cocoa is that the hybrid cocoa, which was developed by the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, rapidly depletes soil nutrients when it is not accompanied by fertilizer.  This cocoa produces high yields, which mean they produce comparatively more food which ultimately reduces the amount of space needed for farming.  Unfortunately, they also have shorter production cycles due to the stress of higher yields (6). Since lush vegetation is where all the nutrients are, when the vegetation is removed and the farmers do not fertilize the fields, the land which was once fertile becomes a desert. In addition to environmental challenges, the farmers and harvesters of these crops face socioeconomic challenges, which include inadequate living conditions, low incomes, child labor, and a lack of knowledge and education (4).

cocoa agrofarming2

Cocoa agrofarming:

Fear not though – not everything about cocoa agriculture is negative.  When farmers use an integrated approach of combining their crops with other natural vegetation, such as trees and shrubs (also known as agroforestry), the biodiversity prospers more than other agricultural land approaches.  Another solution to further increase biodiversity would be establishing shade canopies throughout the crop because studies show that biodiversity is substantially better when cocoa is grown under shade (8).

How can you make a difference to reduce the deforestation caused by chocolate production? Be sure to buy chocolate that is sourced sustainably – you can do this by buying chocolate that has Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade certifications.

Looking for a comprehensive, easy to read guide to all things cocoa? Check out this guide to learn all about cocoa production, markets, trade, and use.



3. Birlouez, E. “Le chocolat,«nourriture des dieux».” Phytothérapie (2013): 1-4.

4. Borg, Josefin, and Julie K. Selmer. “From Ghana to Magnum Ice Cream. Tracking Down the Organisation of Sustainable Cocoa Product Chains.” (2012).

5. Gockowski, James, Victor Afari-Sefa, Daniel Bruce Sarpong, Yaw B. Osei-Asare, and Nana Fredua Agyeman. “Improving the productivity and income of Ghanaian cocoa farmers while maintaining environmental services: what role for certification?.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability ahead-of-print (2013): 1-16.

6. Victor, Afari-Sefa, James Gockowski, Nana Fredua Agyeman, and Ambrose K. Dziwornu. “Economic cost-benefit analysis of certified sustainable cocoa production in Ghana.” In Proc. of the 3rd African Association of Agricultural Economists (AAAE) and 48th Agricultural Economists Association of South Africa (AEASA) Conference, pp. 19-23. 2010.

7. Gockowski, Jim, and Denis Sonwa. “Cocoa intensification scenarios and their predicted impact on CO2 emissions, biodiversity conservation, and rural livelihoods in the Guinea rain forest of West Africa.” Environmental Management 48, no. 2 (2011): 307-321.

8.  Gbetnkom, Daniel. “Deforestation in Cameroon: immediate causes and

consequences.” Environment and development economics 10, no. 4 (2005): 557.