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Cacao and the Environment


            Around 2,000 years ago, people in the Americas began the cultivation of a small tropical American evergreen tree, Theobroma cacao, for its fruit, the cacao bean. The bean quickly became part of everyday life for Mesoamericans, who not only consumed cacao but also considered it to have elements of divine nature.  Although it is not certain how cacao arrived in Europe, thought to be by Spanish conquest, by the late 1500s it was a treasured treat that quickly gained popularity with upper class citizens. However, “chocolate didn’t suit the foreigners’ tastebuds at first… but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain,” which led to the creation of chocolate, a sweetened food prepared from roasted and ground cacao seeds (Smithsonianmag). Over the next two centuries, chocolate expanded to include a spectrum of inexpensive treats all with more sugar and additives than the next. The growth in demand and expanding market created a need for large-scale cacao tree farms to produce at unmanageable rates.  Additionally, limited regulation on cacao production has manifested issues that will become unsustainable, given the restricted natural resources found on earth. Initially brewed as a drink for social, medical, and other cultural principles, over time cacao’s role in society has developed into a complex component of societal complications such as climate control, biodiversity, deforestation, and unfair trade on a global scale.

Chocolate Production:

Today, the largest producers of cacao are Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana followed by Nigeria and Cameroon. From 2000-2010 cocoa production increased from about 2,000,000 tons to around 3,000,000 tons. However, the average yield for farms has remained relatively low because many use poor soil and outdated growing methods (Wessel and Wessel).  Consequently, farmers hoping to increase their cocoa output sought out new land within the possible growing regions of cacao.  This exploration for new land has resulted in large-scale deforestation.  This issue has begun to impact the production levels of cacao and working conditions for farmers. In order to sustain production, farmers need to adapt new growing techniques which produce high-yielding harvests with reused cacao trees and farmland, new fair trade policies, and outside investment to improve infrastructure within these developing countries.

            Cacao farming can only take place approximately 15 degrees above or below the Equator.  After planting cacao trees it can take as long as three years for them produce enough to be harvested. A machete or sharp knife must be used to cut cacao pods as the trees are highly prone to disease. The beans are then removed from the pods, fermented, dried, removed from shells, and roasted. The farmers generally rely on cacao for large proportions of their household income selling their product to traders, who sell to exporters. The product is then sold to established companies which process cacao into different products to be sold on the market. This value chain has been subject to positive change within the last 20 years but there are still major flaws which will be address later in this post.

Due to the specific environmental needs for the production of cacao, lowland tropics including Latin America, West African, and Indonesia, the amount of land needed to produce cacao is very significant. “In fact, cocoa had the largest land-use footprint of all crop production in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, accounting for about one quarter… for Nigeria, cocoa has the largest land-use footprint of exported crops, accounting for 55 per cent, while in Indonesia cocoa accounts for 12 per cent of the exported footprint” (resourcetrade). Furthermore, this area continues to grow in countries where investment to improve production technique and equipment has stagnated. Consequently, around seventy percent of total global cacao production is produced by smallholder farmers, where productivity is loosely regulated and labor conditions are extremely poor.  This has given large companies the ability to unfairly treat these laborers by lowering compensation, only adding to the myriad of issues with cacao production.

Another problematic aspect of chocolate production is found during the manufacturing process.  A study published in the journal Food Research International, found that the chocolate industry creates around 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.  To put in perspective, this is comparable to the annual emissions of a city the size of Pittsburgh, PA. Additionally, it found that it takes as much as 1,000 liters of water to produce a single bar of chocolate (economictimes). There are other factors that could be added to these totals such as transportation costs, dairy production, and the materials used in packaging.

Deforestation and Biodiversity:

            As mentioned above, cacao is a grown by small-scale farmers in humid lowland tropics.  These areas are known to have high biodiversity which is a key element for producing high rates of healthy cacao beans. Farmers tend to use one of two growing techniques, the use of shade to compliment biodiversity benefits or full-sun exposure. With the market price volatility of cacao and the fragile nature of cacao trees, the full-sun exposure practice has become appealing to producers as it helps for a better harvest.  However, this technique results in more likelihood of disease and requires the use of herbicides to eliminate weed growth. Consequently, the different chemicals found in herbicides destroys the land.  Disease, loss of fertile soil, and other difficulties has also impacted the sustainability of such crops. Such concerns result in the continued clearing of new lands threatening biodiversity and deforestation of tropical forests (Franzen and Mulder). “Global forest loss due to cocoa production has been estimated at between 2 to 3 million hectares for the period 1988-2008, equivalent to about 1 per cent of total forest loss over this time,” which is substantial loss for producer countries (resourcetrade). By eliminating forest lands, there is a major reduction in biodiversity and other living systems living in such areas.  Wildlife habitats are eliminated and plant variety is reduced.  The loss of an ecosystem can also have lasting effects on production. As cacao farming becomes more stressful on the environment, the yields of cacao tress will start to diminish. With the increase in greenhouse gases, the higher average temperature is changing the location where cacao can be produced.  If this trend continues, the undesirable effects of production could start to impact more regions around the globe. With current practices in place, this is added pressure to the already high demand for cacao is unmaintainable.

Shade grown cacao
Sun exposure to Cacao plants

Unfair Trade:

            A major reason for this trend is the idea of unequal ecological exchange mentioned in Ndongo Samba Sylla’s work, The Fair Trade Scandal.  It is described as, “the non-observance by market prices of the scarce and sometimes non-renewable nature of environmental resources is the cornerstone of a new form of unequal exchange between North and South. Indeed, according to this approach, the environmental ‘energy’ which is embedded in developing countries’ exports is not factored into the invoicing of the prices they receive” (Sylla 2014).

Furthermore, countries with currently abundant natural resources sell to more developed countries at a price that does not compensate for their environmental deprivation and loss of resources. Cacao production regions have been victims of this crisis since the original European chocolate craze. Although cacao production techniques have many faults, it is not something farmers can control within the procedures of the current system.  The value chain of cacao trade has taken its toll on local farmers.  More specifically, international trade has hindered economic equality not taking into account economic, social, and environmental concerns of underdeveloped countries.

            For countries which produce large amounts of cacao, the private sector the chocolate industry has determined exports, market power, and price. The close relationship between supply and volatile demand has impacted the global markets inconsistency dealing with the price of cacao.  The regulation of production is important for sustainability, yet governments of producing countries have slowly lost the capability to manage international trade markets for cacao, which has deteriorated their ability to maintain domestic regulations. This unregulated market has left farmers susceptible to unjust trade.  Low export prices and privatized purchasing of cacao have therefore had negative externalities on the environment incentivizing farmers to plant and harvest at rate which natural resources cannot support (Ingram et al).

What Can Be Done:

            These economic, political, and market modifications have begun to transform as the cacao industry becomes more and more of a threat to the ecosystem. The United Nations, and groups alike, sustainable growth programs have created capacity to improve outdated farming practices and to reform financial and institutional framework for agricultural production.  A few key elements discussed below are the first steps towards cacao sustainability:

  1. Improve outdated Farming practices.
    • The rehabilitation of existing farms- the economic lifetime of a cacao tree is between 30 and 40 years. Farms that qualify for rehabilitation can integrate good maintenance and innovative disease control which can help raise their harvest yield by forty percent over a 4-year time period (Wessel and Wessel). Additionally, these farms can be partially or completely replanted. Trials have shown that planting young trees among old trees can lead to more successful harvest than planting under temporary shaded fields that have been deforested (Nalley and Popp).
    • Government supported replanting arrangements—the distribution of seeds which have more resistance to disease. Amazon hybrids have been associated with forty-two percent higher yields (Wessel and Wessel).
    • Shade-grown cacao— Naturally cacao grows in the shade of rainforest cover.  Farms have the ability to transition from sun-grown cacao back to more natural ways of farming, either by planting in areas of the rainforest untouched by deforestation or by planting tropical trees and plants around their cacao plantations.
      • The use of more advanced fertilizers, pesticides, modified soil, and improved seeds would supplement these practices (Franzen and Mulder).
    • Technology and Improvements in Knowledge—Due to the small average size of cacao farms, farmers do not have access to new technologies that would increase yields, limiting the need to expand plantations.  Additionally, as the knowledge frontier in farming advances, cacao farmers remain unable to adapt these methods on their lands.  Local governments and the agricultural sector need to incentivize farmers to adopt new, more efficient farming practices through the stabilization of farmer’s incomes, easier access to credit, and more effective land tenure systems (weadapt).
  2. Reform financial and institutional framework for agricultural production
    • The introduction of due diligence requirements for importers
      • Prohibit the import of illegally produced cacao
    • Inclusion of sustainability provisions in trade agreements
      • Negotiate mutual trade agreements with producer countries intended to support legal forest zones through the formation of national systems to certify authorized cacao (resourcetrade).
    • Improvements in infrastructure for production countries
      • Target rural areas to improve education, health, roads, and access to new supplies and credit.

All reforms mentioned above are all needed within the cacao Industry. The high dependence on cacao production and the risks of climate change are both convincing arguments as to a reason for exploration into improving the business and livelihoods of all those involved.  There will be roadblocks establishing truly sustainable cacao trade, economy, and environmental system but there is great motivation to improve the culture around cacao as a whole.


Sylla, Ndongo. Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Ohio University Press, 2014.

Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008,

“Cocoa Trade, Climate Change and Deforestation.”,

“NCAP Ghana: Assessment of Agriculture Sector.” WeADAPT,

“Chocolate Production May Be Harming Environment: Study.” The Economic Times, 2 Apr. 2018,

Franzen, Margaret, and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder. “Ecological, Economic and Social Perspectives on Cocoa Production Worldwide.” Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 16, no. 13, 2007, pp. 3835–3849., doi:10.1007/s10531-007-9183-5.

Ingram, Verina, et al. “The Impacts of Cocoa Sustainability Initiatives in West Africa.” Sustainability, vol. 10, no. 11, 2018, p. 4249., doi:10.3390/su10114249.

Wessel, Marius, and P.m. Foluke Quist-Wessel. “Cocoa Production in West Africa, a Review and Analysis of Recent Developments.” NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, vol. 74-75, 2015, pp. 1–7., doi:10.1016/j.njas.2015.09.001.

Comparing culture surrounding cacao in Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

The history of chocolate is something that countless people tend to take for granted in today’s world.  It is very rare to find someone eating a chocolate bar to stop and think, “what elements of this food have had significant historical influence? are the ingredients found in present day chocolate similar to those used millenniums ago? what types of techniques were involved in making chocolate hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?” A large percentage of people do not understand how influential chocolate, more specifically cacao, was during the earliest time periods is production. Furthermore, an awareness of the true history of the culture surrounding cacao.

Mayan and Aztec Production of Chocolate:

Some of the earliest civilizations to implement cacao as a main element of daily diet were the Maya and Aztec people.   It is believed that the first civilization to use cacao was the Olmec people dating back to 1500 BCE. However, it was not until the Maya and Aztec civilizations that the production of cacao was recorded. They would “harvest the beans from cacao trees… ferment and dry them, roast them, remove their shells, and ground them into paste. They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices, then poured the spicy, bitter mixture back and forth between two containers to create a frothy head” (Howstuffworks). The “frothy head” was considered the most desirable aspect of the drink to the Maya and Aztec people (Coe & Coe, 2013). The final product had a very bitter taste, but cacao was looked upon in such high regard that the Mayans called it the “food of the gods” (Godiva).

Cacao Uses in Mayan Culture:

Cacao was available to people of all classes, which resulted in the bean making a large presence in the Maya culture. Cacao was consumed, used in marriage rituals, sacrificed to gods, implemented as a currency, placed in graves, and given as medicine.  The Maya consumed the cacao beverage warm.   Royal elites of the Maya would consume the cacao beverage at the end of meals with different spices such as vanilla and flowers. While the middle and lower class would enjoy cacao with less expensive ingredients (Howstuffworks).

In marriage, “the bride would give the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao” (Coe & Coe, 2013).  Here we see that the exchange of cacao between bridge and groom was used to seal marriage ceremonies. It also important to note cacao was served while the father of the bride and the groom would sit to discuss the marriage (Martin, 2019).

Cacao was often called the “food of the gods”. Furthermore, the Maya worshiped the God, Ek Chuaj (seen below), who was the patron of cacao and had a festival each April.  The sacrifices during the holiday included offerings of cacao (ricochetscience).

            As a currency, cacao beans were used as a bargaining tool to exchange for everyday items like cloths and food. The True History of Chocolate gives insight into the varying prices for different goods. The example, “a rabbit was worth about ten of these “almonds,” eight chicosapote fruits were worth four “almonds,” a slave about a hundred of them, and the services of a prostitute, eight to ten “according to how they agree,” provides a clear value of cacao bean within the Mayan rule (Coe &Coe 2013).

            The final use of cacao was medicine. Cacao was prescribed as a cure for digestive problems, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory purposes (Martin, 2019).

Cacao Uses in Aztec Culture:

When comparing the Maya and Aztec uses of cacao, we see that there are many overlaps in cultural aspects. Similar to the Maya, Aztec peoples used cacao as a food, currency, divine sacrifice, and for medicinal purposes ( The main differences between the two cultures is found with in the minor details of the categories mentioned above.  

Unlike the Maya, the Aztec people would consume the cacao beverage cold. Additionally, the cacao drink was not widely spread throughout social classes of the Aztecs. The drink was more expensive to make, due to the importance cacao beans as a main form of currency, so only upper-class citizens would enjoy it frequently. The lower-class citizens would only enjoy cacao on very special occasions (Godiva).

            The Aztec took cacao as currency to different levels compared to the Maya.  As it was the main form of currency and more valuable than gold. The cacao beans were taxed and held a strict price level for trade ( The cacao was used as a form of “ready cash” which was used to buy anything from small household items to farm animals (Coe & Coe, 2013).

            Lastly, the Aztec would use cacao for a variety of medical treatments, like the Maya, which included fevers, skin eruptions, and seizures (Martin, 2019).

            In the image above we see an Aztec glyphic of two individuals worshiping a cacao tree and its produce. The Maya and Aztec had similar ideologies on the cacao bean as something of divine nature.

            The two Mesoamerican civilizations are the reason chocolate is so popular today. If it wasn’t for the European invasion, the chocolate we eat so much of today could have played an extremely different role in our everyday lives. 

Works Cited:

Source 1

 Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames &

            Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Source 2

Contributors, “The History of Chocolate.” HowStuffWorks,

            HowStuffWorks, 18 Nov. 2007,


Source 3

The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs,


Source 4

 “Cacao: The Mayan ‘Food of the Gods’ • Ricochet Science.” Ricochet Science, 14 Apr. 2016,


Source 5

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2019. Lecture slides.



Khan, Gulnaz, director. Ancient Art of Chocolate Making National Geographic, 11 Sept. 2017,



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