One may think that chocolate, pesticides and pollutants are an odd combination.

Three years ago I, too would have tilted my head with a perplexed expression on my face. Not anymore. Over the course of three years, I looked deeply beyond the label to discover exactly how the chocolate I love is made.

Here's a glimpse into my journey focusing on where chocolate comes from, the ways it can be grown, and how these varied approaches to growing cacao impact soil and above all, our environment. I hope the insight shared below will have you consider where your next chocolate comes from, and what type of effect it has on the environment. Better yet, I beg of you to please purchase cacao-based products that are grown "responsibly" because it will make a big difference.

Basically, the world loves chocolate, it's a $100bn global industry.

Like wine, where the grapes are grown in vineyards, this sweet treat originates on a farm. It is processed from the seeds of the cacao tree. A major consideration when growing cacao is the terroir, as soil, landscape, and climate all affect flavor. These factors are important to responsible chocolate manufacturers and these factors are often neglected when it comes to mass-market chocolate.

Cocoa Belt
Area of the globe where cacao grows.

Cacao can only be grown 20 degrees north & south of the Equator; within a swath of the globe known as the "Cocoa Belt." Approximately 70% of the beans supplied come from West Africa in countries such a Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The rest comes from Asia, Oceania and the Americas, where their share is increasing. Hawaii is the only cacao growing region in North America.

The Cocoa Belt climate is ideal for the trees, which grow well in humid tropical climates with regular rains and a short dry season. Temperatures between 69 -73 degrees Fahrenheit, with a fairly constant rainfall of 3-8 feet, are needed without hot dry winds and drought. This very delicate tree is nurtured by five to six million small cocoa farmers; 80% -90% of the cacao farms are 2-4 hectares (5-10 acres).

Cacao seedlings often are planted in the shelter of taller mother trees such as banana, plantain, coconut and rubber. These canopy cover crops provide critical protection from direct sun and wind while also producing other cash crops. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), cover crops are one of the most effective ways to make staple crops and soil their most productive while also enriching land for future use and providing biodiversity for the greater ecosystem.

A shady cocoa tree grove.
A shady cocoa tree grove. Photo Credit: William Mullan, Raaka

Shade trees are powerhouses, over time the leaves and the branches that decay fall to the ground and return organic matter to the soil.

The shade provided by these trees also helps to keep soil moist in dry seasons, which results in less damaging irrigation practices. Shade trees will raise the amount of infiltration and slow erosion of the soil. Since shade inhibits the growth of weeds, farmers are able to use less or perhaps no pesticides which can decrease the occurrences of a disease known as Witches Broom.

As shared by World Agroforestry, farmers are encouraged to preserve existing tropical forest areas and to plant additional trees to shelter cacao trees. This helps create an important natural environment for migrating birds, midges (the tiny flies that are a main pollinator of cacao) and other wildlife. The different tree species make it more difficult for pests and disease to spread from one cacao tree to another, and the soil remains rich and nourishing due to decaying plant matter.

Farmer’s committed to responsible growing practices also employ techniques including machete technology.

This involves walking the orchards each week with a knife, harvesting ripe pods and, to stop any disease from spreading, cutting off sickly pods. Weeding, thinning the canopy and controlling its height, and pruning are also effective.

Farms may even enforce breaks in pod production and bury pod husks to prevent larvae hatchings or remove the soil tunnels that ants build on the trees' trunks, because both soil and ants carry the fungi.

Sustainable cocoa growing, benefits the farmer, the environment and chocolate lovers everywhere.

Conversely, in a few areas of the world, cocoa is still grown on large plantations where hundreds of trees are planted together. If grown in full sun without taller trees to shade the cocoa, the plantation-grown trees may only be productive for a few years. Long-term, the direct sunlight stresses the cacao trees, making them more susceptible to pests and disease that can rapidly spread among trees grown close together. Without the cover trees, the soil also is more easily depleted of nutrients, requiring costly pesticides and chemical fertilizers to maintain production. This creates a number of environmental issues, such as pollution, destruction of ecosystems, deforestation, and soil degradation.

Since some of the world’s largest chocolate companies like Mars, Nestlé and Hershey’s base their pricing strategies on their ability to sell large quantities of chocolate at low prices, they commonly source these bulk, mass-market beans from many West African nation.

Unfortunately, these inexpensive costs come with other expenses, as harmful chemicals like lindane and methyl bromide are found in the pesticides used to maintain cocoa. In West African countries, lindane is the most commonly used pesticide in the region. What’s more, as cited in the WSJ article, Child Labor On The Rise in West Africa as Demand for Cocoa Grows, in the world’s largest cocoa growing countries, Ivory Coast and Ghana—found 2.1 million child laborers in cocoa production in those countries, the vast majority under hazardous conditions.

Soil fertility is also reduced due to pesticides.

Pesticides cause land degradation in various ways including killing microorganisms that maintain the natural fertility of the soil. When agricultural chemicals are over-applied they can also kill off useful species like earthworms that are beneficial organisms within the soil and deplete soil of its nutrients.

Guess What?
Dirty truth: if you go around killing off all the bugs, worms, weeds and micro-organisms you wind up with dirt instead of happy soil.

CCN-51 trees can yield about four times as much cocoa as the world average. Shade trees are not required and the cocoa trees are densely packed on the farmer’s land.

Additionally, some chocolate manufacturers and farmers look to beans from the high-yielding CCN-51 (Coleccion Castro Naranjal), a hybrid tree; its name refers to its original breeder, Homero Castro, and the number of attempts before he grew a productive tree in the mid-1960s. Due to its fast growing nature, CCN-51 requires more labor, maintenance, water, chemicals, rapidly depletes the farm’s soil, endangering the farm’s sustainability and threatening both biodiversity and the survival of wildlife in the area.

Sadly, the mass-market chocolate manufacturers don't seem to care, as they will mask the horrid flavor with vanilla and sugar and other add-ins. Nor do they care that the CCN-51 root system rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients, hence requiring more fertilizers.


Then there are those cacao-production companies that have already cleared thousands of hectares of carbon-rich, bio diverse forest. According to the World Resources Institute, in 2012, United Cacao began deforesting 2,000 hectares (nearly 5,000 acres) of carbon-rich Peruvian rainforest for a commercial cacao plantation. NASA satellite images enabled researchers to collect data needed to estimate the resulting carbon emissions. Airborne LiDAR technology used to estimate that the patch of forest contained an average of 122 metric tons of carbon per hectare (54.4 tons per acre). Research suggests that United Cacao’s plantation will store, on average, about 40 metric tons of carbon per hectare (about 18 tons per acre) over its production lifetime, meaning that over the deforested 2,000-hectare (approximately 5,000-acre) area, the net carbon emissions from land-use change will be more than 660,000 tons of carbon dioxide—about the same emissions as driving a car around Earth 60,000 times.

Chocolate Bars, Photo Credit: Raaka
Chocolate Bars, Photo Credit: Jared Thaler

Ok. So what does this have to do with soil?


When we burn down forests we degrade the land. Meaning our soil is no longer fertile, no longer capable of fulfilling its many roles such as storing carbon, producing food for humans and the many other ecosystems it nurtures. The trees are gone, the root systems are dead, the water becomes polluted, fish die, the soil cannot soak up the water, leading to landslides. The picture is not a pretty one.

Please don’t turn a blind eye to the irresponsible cacao growing practices being utilized worldwide that have horrid environmental, economic and social repercussions. Take the opportunity to enjoy a delicious cup of cocoa or piece of chocolate that lifts lives and is compassionate to our environment.

Joy Thaler, a socially conscious mom and self-confessed chocoholic, is passionate about the global cocoa market, and her heart is grounded in truth and transparency. The fiery passion that resulted from her research led her to start Cocoa Compassion. Follow her on Twitter @compassionbars