Bittersweet: chocolate's impact on the environment

chocolate on a table

At least 2,000 years ago, people in the Americas began cultivating the cocoa tree for its dark, bitter beans, which they brewed into a drink spiced with hot peppers. Today, we blend the beans with milk and sugar and call the stuff chocolate. And we eat loads of it.



Amount of chocolate that Americans consume during the week of Valentine’s Day, from milk chocolate hearts to boutique truffles.



Estimated percentage of the world’s cocoa beans grown in West Africa, where climate change is expected to boost temperatures and prolong dry spells in coming decades. That’s not good news for local cocoa farmers: cocoa trees are sensitive to heat and drought.



Global demand for cocoa is fast rising—and producers are struggling to keep pace. It can take an entire year for a cocoa tree to produce the cocoa in just half a pound of chocolate. Older trees also yield less cocoa, and most of the world’s cocoa plantations are well past their peak production years.



sad chocolateCocoa is a critical cash crop for West African farmers, many of whom own just a few acres of land and can’t afford chocolate themselves. But the plant’s production is also fueling deep problems there. In particular:


Cocoa farmers usually clear tropical forests to plant new cocoa trees rather than reusing the same land. That practice has spurred massive deforestation in West Africa, particularly in Ivory Coast. Experts estimate that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is related to cocoa farming.


West Africa’s cocoa farmers frequently use child labor to help with growing, harvesting, and transporting cocoa beans. During the 2013-14 growing season, an estimated 2 million children were used for hazardous labor throughout Ghana and Ivory Coast.


happy chocolate Despite the cocoa industry’s challenges, there’s hope. Experts have identified a number of farming techniques that could boost the productivity of existing cocoa farms, reducing the need for clearing more forests. Additionally, candy company Mars has mapped the cocoa genome, leading to trees that are three to four times more productive than varieties often used in West Africa; they can also be more climate resistant.


WWF works with the world's biggest chocolate companies to improve cocoa production. One, Barry Callebaut, processes 22% of chocolate globally. In November 2016, the company unveiled Forever Chocolate, a suite of sustainability goals for 2025. The goals include achieving zero child labor and deforestation in its supply chains; replanting 2.5 million acres of cocoa on existing cocoa plantations; using 100% sustainable ingredients in all products; and lifting 500,000 producers out of poverty.

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