Chocolate Doesn’t Grow in Stores?

I hope you’re in a good mood and open-minded as you read this article, because it’s not all rosy. In fact, you might even experience intense emotions such as: the desire to eat chocolate, guilt, the desire to make yourself a hot chocolate, a certain disdain for capitalism or the desire to bake a chocolate cake… Personally, strong emotions make me crave chocolate, so imagine if, on top of that, it’s all about… chocolate!

Photo: Anete Lusina

What Does a Gardening Blog Have to Do With Chocolate?

In my opinion, there are several reasons. Firstly, cocoa, the key ingredient in this sweet treat, grows on a tree. I know, it’s surprising, but chocolate is basically a fruit.

Photo: Medicaster

Cocoa is actually very good for your health and has many virtues (just saying!).

Secondly, cocoa farming is an ecological (and human) disaster.

What? Eating chocolate is bad for the environment because of the way it’s grown?

In a way, yes…

Do you see the connection now? Don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture you. That would be highly inappropriate, considering that I eat quite a lot of chocolate myself. But I do want to share the problem with you, just so you’re aware of it. I think it’s an interesting issue for all gardeners, even if it’s not happening in your flower beds, and I believe that the first step to solving a problem is to talk about it!

Cacao, Cocoa Tree, or Cocoa? Pod or Bean?

Before we get into the bad news, let’s get one thing straight… this tree is called Theobroma cacao. It’s acceptable to call the tree simply Cacao (since that’s the Latin name of the species), but to avoid confusion in this article, I’ll use “Cocoa Tree” to refer to the tree and “cocoa” to refer to the ingredient.

Some Surprising Facts About the Cocoa Tree

The cacao tree, then, is native to South America, but has been introduced to Mexico. It’s a fairly small tree (10 to 15 metres, or 30 to 50 feet, that’s very small in the world of tropical giants) with large leaves, which produces up to 100,000 flowers a year. I beg your pardon? Yes, 100,000! However, only one flower in 500 will be pollinated, and that’s throughout the year; there won’t be all these flowers on the tree at the same time, nor all the pods at the same time. Another amazing fact: the flowers grow on the trunk!

Cultivated trees (which are pruned a little smaller) produce up to 500 pods a year, giving 6 kg of cocoa. The pod is the fruit. It looks like an American football. Inside the pod are the seeds of the fruit, the beans, which, when roasted and processed, give the delicious cocoa.

By the way, its genus name (Theobroma) is in Greek and means “food of the gods”! No more, no less!

Fèves de cacao. Photo: Aude

Domestication of this tree dates back some 4,000 years to Mesoamerica (Central America). Among the Mayas and Aztecs, cocoa was consumed as a rather bitter beverage, flavored with vanilla or chili pepper. This beverage, reserved for high society, was called xocoatl, pronounced “tchocoalt”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Cocoa was reputed to give energy and was associated with deities. In fact, it was so highly prized that it was even used as currency! The Spaniards were obviously also charmed by cocoa when they arrived in America…

Growing Cacao

Today, cacao is grown wherever it’s possible to grow a cocoa tree. After all, many people seem to agree that it’s a delicious plant!

Can you grow it at home? If you could, believe me, it’d be the only thing I’d have on my property! Unfortunately, this tree has very specific requirements: 85% humidity, over 2,000 millimeters of rain per year (!), and a year-round temperature of 25 C° (75?).

Frankly, we were amazed to be able to grow strawberries in greenhouses in winter in Canada a few years ago, so we’re a long, long way from being able to grow cocoa trees, let alone productive ones!

The Cacao Tree in the Tropics

Almost all cacao is produced in regions where the climate is naturally suitable. We’re talking about West Africa (which produces 70% of the world’s cocoa), South America and Southeast Asia. Forget greenhouse cultivation for this plant; it would be very arduous and probably unprofitable.

The trouble is, tropical regions are also what we call “biodiversity hot spots”. These are the richest places on the planet in terms of plant and animal species, and they often have an impact on much larger areas, if not the whole planet!

Ever heard the expression “green lung” in reference to a vast forest? We often speak of the Amazon or the Congo Basin in these terms. These “lungs” sequester large quantities of carbon, one of today’s most problematic greenhouse gases.

And since cocoa is a tropical plant, it thrives best in these same forests. But frankly, who wants to walk for miles through a dense and fairly hostile forest, with a big bag of cocoa beans on their back? Especially since this method would NEVER produce enough chocolate to satisfy the planet!

The way to do it, to make the work (and the profits) easier, is to clear the land and set up a cocoa plantation. So far, I don’t think I’m telling you much. However, the impact on the environment is such that the disappearance of the so-called primary forest is causing weather changes in the region. In addition to climate change, some of these tropical regions receive less and less rain, which greatly affects the yield of this water-intensive crop.

Photo: Chennawit Yulue

Gardeners at Risk

The price of cacao varies greatly from year to year, depending on productivity. The beans are exported to be transformed into cocoa, which then travels from one country to another to become chocolate, before being exported once again to the traders: that’s a lot of intermediaries. When you buy your favorite chocolate bar with a full tank of gas, its main ingredient has probably traveled from Côte d’Ivoire to Germany, then Switzerland, before arriving at your gas station. And that’s not counting storage, packaging, etc.

The result of this round-the-world trip: everyone takes a cut. The farmer only gets around 6% of the profits from the sale of his cocoa beans. Imagine that in a year with little rain!

In Côte d’Ivoire, the biggest producer with 40% of the world’s production on its territory, approximately 6,000,000 people depend on this crop. Let’s not forget that machinery is often lacking in these parts of the world, and that most of the work is done by hand. Cultivating, maintaining and harvesting a field of cacao trees is labor-intensive.

Photo : Pixabay

Is Chocolate in Danger?

No, not at the moment, phew!

We’re not at the point of no return yet, despite what many alarmists would have us believe. BUT, we must take care of this resource to avoid reaching that point. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do from our position as Westerners. Productivity problems in the fields are beyond our control: ageing trees, depleted soils, pests, loss of genetic diversity, complications linked to monocultures or poor growing or pod-drying practices.

However, we are the consumers, which gives us a great deal of power in the marketplace! I know that fair-trade or eco-friendly chocolate is more expensive and, not to lie to you, I’m not perfect. It’s hard for me to tell you to boycott popular brands when I don’t do it myself.

Our Power as Consumers

What I’m proposing is to be on the lookout: now that you know what the problem is, maybe you’ll find out more? Maybe in a few years’ time, a popular brand will announce an investment to help cocoa farms, and you’ll choose to buy that brand rather than another? Perhaps talking about it will encourage more research into the subject?

However, if you can afford it, perhaps a few times a year, I invite you to buy a chocolate bar that doesn’t come from a major brand. Find out where the ingredients come from and how they’re treated. Sure, it’ll cost you double or triple what you’re used to, but you’ll be doing a good deed for good-practice growers who, with their success, may inspire others!

I proudly took up my own challenge as soon as I had put the finishing touches to my article. It was Anne from the Mordicus boutique in Granby who advised me on responsible chocolates. Her great passion for the subject and in-depth knowledge of her products was in itself a very pleasant experience. Learning about the history of Bonnat chocolate was a real journey. She taught me how to properly taste my product to appreciate all its flavors, and I discovered an excellent chocolate that gave me a different taste experience from other chocolates, even good quality ones!

If you live in the area, I invite you to visit this charming, recently opened boutique. If not, I suggest you check out your local delicatessens: they’re full of wonderful discoveries!

The chocolate display at Mordicus (on my next visit, I must try the chocolate, vanilla and Madagascar hazelnut spread, I’ll devour everything in this store!)

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

4 comments on “Chocolate Doesn’t Grow in Stores?

  1. marolynmagnolia

    I have a small chocolate tree in my greenhouse. This is the third I’ve tried to keep alive during winter. They are very beautiful showing off their leaves. I discovered the problem I was having getting them to survive winter was humidity. My greenhouse would only get up to 40% humidity during winter. I put a clear plastic bag over it, poked air holes and wrapped it tight at the bottom. Now it is looking beautiful. If I never get any chocolate pods on it, I will be satisfied with its total beauty, anyway.

  2. Of the few tropical plants that I should not bother with but do so anyway, this is one that I really do not bother with. Seriously, it is too discriminating. I might be able to keep it alive, but could not get it to be productive.

  3. Great article Audrey. After seeing a documentary on chocolate I now always check the label on any chocolate bar for the fair trade symbol. Chocolate coming from West Africa can also have human rights concerns. Astounding how something so delicious can have so many environmental and social issues.

  4. Ann T Dubas

    Thanks Audrey! Very interesting and, like everything, complicated.

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