A Bittersweet Future – The Sustainability of Cocoa


Theobroma. This is the Latin word for cocoa, and it means “the food of gods.” For ancient cultures like the Mayans and Aztecs, the bean was nothing short of divine. Cocoa trees served as bridges between heaven and earth, and chocolaty drinks played crucial roles in religious ceremonies. Moreover, the fruit acted as an economic staple, often exchanged as currency and utilized as a gift in trade deals.[1] But treating cocoa like royalty is hardly unheard of. In fact, we Westerners worship cocoa and its derivative, chocolate, like heavenly delicacies. We have movies dedicated to the treat, fountains gushing with the stuff at parties, and even chocolate theme parks. But with love and appraisal comes intense cultivation and greed, yielding some potentially harmful side effects. Is our obsession with cocoa sustainable? To speak reputably and accurately about the sustainability of cocoa, I will first provide a broad scope about the consumption and production of the bean, and start by detailing its history.


When the Spaniards started settling in the New World during the 16th century, they were introduced to the native delicacy of chocolatl. Essentially a primordial form of hot chocolate, chocolatl was a warm, cocoa-filled beverage used in engagement and marriage practices. And the Spaniards, discovering the bitter, yet blissful taste of the drink, decided quickly to adopt it as their own. Soon after their arrival, the conquistadors commenced their subjugation of the native population, with cocoa and other resources in the New World being the impetus for the brutal quest. Even though the Spaniards initially kept the secret of cocoa to themselves, other nations soon colonized the region and unveiled the wondrous treat. Word of cocoa’s production quickly hopped the pond, with Europe’s major foodie, France, commercializing the good in the 1600s.[2]

At first, the delicacy was confined to the upper class, as it was still expensive to harvest, ship, and produce. But with the advent of the steam engine and mechanized cocoa bean grinding in the 18th century, everyone caught the chocolate bug. By the next century, chocolate houses were flourishing throughout London, and a variety of other confections—including chocolate candy—were being produced from England to Austria in a matter of decades. Today, 3 million tons of cocoa pods are plucked annually.[3] And that number just keeps going up.

Harvest & Production

COLOMBIA - From coca to cacaoExtracting the cacao beans after harvest” by USAID U.S. Agency for International Development is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

While a good chunk of cocoa production still occurs in South America, much of the economy migrated to Africa. Ghana and the Ivory Coast together churn out about half of the world’s cocoa, and I use the word churn for a reason.[3] The harvesting of cocoa is incredibly labor-intensive, and oftentimes whole families work together to knock the bean-pods down during harvest season. After collecting the pods, families slice them open and extract the pulp-covered beans by hand. They are then shipped to the United States or Europe to be primed for sweetness.

The beans arrive in factories to be fermented. During this process, the watery pulp on the outside of the beans are sweat off to give the bean its signature flavor. Then, the beans are dried, the nibs used in chocolate are excavated from the shell, and then roasted. Finally, the crumb-sized wonders are ground furiously into a chocolate liquid known as mass, and then pressed into chocolate itself.[4] Yum!


Evidently, cocoa plays a central role in the histories and economies of cultures—ancient and modern—worldwide. Unfortunately, rising demand for the good due to population growth and expansion of the middle class have precipitated some nasty environmental effects.

Even though cocoa originated in South America, for centuries, more and more of its production occurred in Africa. But recently, that trend has reverted. Due to lack of capacity in Africa, countries like Peru have seen five-fold increases in cocoa production in the past two decades. This has prompted the removal thousands of hectares of rich, biodiverse rainforest. In 2012, United Cacao deforested 2,000 hectares of carbon-rich Peruvian rainforest for commercial cocoa plantations, and conservative estimates surmise that a whopping 224,000 metric tons of carbon were released via this process. By 2050, the net carbon emissions from land-use change will be 0.6 million metric tons, which is about the same as driving a car around the planet 60,000 times.[5]

On top of deforestation and its resulting carbon emissions, increased demand has led to countless non-sustainable farming practices. Rather than being produced in the shade, farmers now allow cocoa trees to bask in the sun to expedite growth. But speed comes at a price: the plants produce lower-quality chocolate and are more vulnerable to disease and pests. Consequently, herbicide usage has skyrocketed, leading to polluted waterways and damaged lands. This, in combination with poor irrigation techniques, galvanizes farmers to abandon their ailing soil and cut even further into nearby forests, perpetuating the cycle of cocoa’s planetary harm.[6]

The Future

I’m not going to sugarcoat it—cocoa’s future looks grim. And the solutions to the problem don’t look pretty either—with the exception of milk chocolate, there is no form of cocoa that is particularly sustainable. (Milk chocolate itself is more sustainable because it uses less cocoa overall.) But it would be an oversimplification to proclaim that giving up chocolate is the be all, end all solution. As this article discussed, cocoa is imbedded in the religious traditions of countless ancient cultures, and acted as a key driving force of their economies. It then captured the attention of Europeans, who valued the good so dearly that they violently snatched it away from their native counterparts. Today, cocoa’s harvest envelops whole families’ work capacities, and its complex transformation into chocolate speaks to how desperately we want, and how intensely we love, this treat.

Evidently, cocoa is never going to leave us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be more conscious consumers, consumers who harken back to the times of the Mayans and Aztecs when the treat was used sparingly, making it all the more special. Our capitalist exploitation of the treat has made it less of a delicacy and more of a tasty commodity, one that many indulge in daily. So I implore you to think twice before you gulp down that steaming mug of hot chocolate or munch on a Hershey kiss this winter. Otherwise, there will be fewer winters left.


If you are feeling moved by this article, there are plenty of NGOs out there like the Conservation Alliance, IITA, and Solidaridad who are fighting deforestation due to high cocoa demand. They could always use your support.

Works Cited

  1. Chocolate use in early Aztec cultures. (2011, January 08). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from International Cocoa Organization, https://www.icco.org/faq/54-cocoa-origins/133-chocolate-use-in-early-aztec-cultures.html
  2. History of Cocoa. (2016). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from World Cocoa Foundation, http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/about-cocoa/history-of-cocoa/
  3. Cocoa Story: Cultivation, Trade, and Transport. (2016). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from European Cocoa Association, http://www.eurococoa.com/en/x/145/cultivation-trade-and-transport
  4. Harvesting and Processing Cocoa Beans. (2016). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from Cadbury, https://www.cadbury.com.au/about-chocolate/harvesting-and-processing-cocoa-beans.aspx
  5. Bentley, J. W., Boa, E., & Stonehouse, J. (2004). Neighbor trees: Shade, intercropping, and cacao in Ecuador. Human Ecology, 32(2), 241–270. doi:10.1023/b:huec.0000019759.46526.4d
  6. Harris, N., Payne, O., & Mann, S. (2015, August ). How much rainforest is in that chocolate bar? Retrieved January 27, 2017, from World Resources Institute, http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/how-much-rainforest-chocolate-bar

Banner Photo:
Cocoa farmer David Kebu Jnr holding the finished product, dried cocoa beans ready for export” by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is licensed under CC BY 2.0