The loss of flora and fauna through extinction is becoming more and more common in these environmentally precarious times. But some losses hurt more than others. The Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC), a Ghanaian non-profit focused on conservation efforts, recently announced some very sad news on the food front; chocolate is going the way of caviar over the next 20 years. That is to say, according to NCRC Executive Director, John Mason, "[Chocolate] will become so rare and so expensive that the average joe won't be able to afford it."
The main culprit in this tragedy is the prevalence of unsustainable farming practices. The use of hybrid seeds to increase output and the planting of trees as monoculture crops in full sun rather than tending them in their native rainforest habitat has led to soil erosion and unhealthy trees that live a third as long as healthy ones and require pesticides and chemical fertilizers. As soil is depleted, farmers cut down more rainforest to plant these higher yield, short-lived cacao trees, leading to further degradation of natural habitat for short-term gain. It also leads to further intensification of the effects of climate change and a decrease in rain fall. It's a losing proposition for everyone in the medium and long terms.
The worst part of this is not the West having to wean itself off of Hershey kisses and Cadbury eggs. In Ghana, and much of West Sub-Saharan Africa, which produces nearly 2/3 of the world's cocoa supply, cocoa is a main export crop and a serious contributor to GDP, even though producers receive only 5% of the profit of the sale of chocolate, according to the European Fair Trade Organization. Issues such as low profitability and unscrupulous labor practices have also kept farmers from entering the cocoa trade at all. And the cocoa trade has not only become environmentally damaging and financially untenable for farmers, it is also one of the most tragic industries in terms of human rights, with a heavy reliance on child slave labor.
Recently, the environmental organization EarthWatch, the British chocolate maker Cadbury, which sources 100% of its cocoa from Ghana, and the NCRC have found common cause in protecting the rainforests and the cocoa trade, and have formed "Earthshare", a scientific research project looking for ways to bring back sustainability to cocoa farming. It is ironic that what they are suggesting - a mixed farming landscape, increased biodiversity to provide natural pest control and fertility, and a return to the use of shaded areas for cocoa production - is exactly how cocoa was grown for centuries. As with so many things, our attempts to "modernize" have back fired terribly. Simultaneously, they are looking for ways to address the economic issues that keep farmers from growing cocoa.
"They're coming at sustainable supply from two angles," says Mark Harper, Program Manager for Earthwatch.
"It's not just about increasing yields; it's also about decreasing the number of farmers leaving the business.
"They are focused on making it a more attractive crop by improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers, whether that's by providing better sanitation, improved access to markets to get a better price for their crop, or helping establish new revenue streams, such as eco tourism." - CNN
Consumers can do their part now by sticking to fair trade certified chocolates that guarantee a decent price for cocoa, that no slave labor was involved and sustainable growing practices were followed. Because a world without chocolate, I don't think any of us really want to think about that!