Tag Archives: Ghana chocolate

Theobroma Cacao: Natural History and Contemporary Sustainability Practices

This post will review the basic botanical timeline of the cacao tree, how it grows from seed to fruiting tree, as well as the differences in sustainability practices in historic Meso-America versus modern West Africa. I will ultimately argue that because cacao production has and will continue to play a large role in economies for decades, and because of the modern challenge of climate change, it would be hugely beneficial for cacao plantations to adapt more sustainable and earth-friendly production practices.

Cacao first originated in Mesoamerica around 1500 B.C. and was cultivated and used for many purposes: drink, food, a form of currency, a symbol of status, a part of social and religious rituals, and more. As it became increasingly valuable, demand for production skyrocketed, and people were forced to optimize their cultivation techniques, (“The History of Chocolate.”). However there were many limitations to their progress. There was little knowledge about processes like pollination and issues like disease, and not enough room for experimentation with things like fertilization.

The most popular variety of cacao plant, scientifically known as Theobroma cacao, is particularly stubborn to cultivate compared to other fruiting trees (think apple or orange trees). It relies on animal or human interference to begin its life cycle, as a new tree cannot grow without the cacao seeds being separated from their tough pod encasing, (Martin, “01 Introduction.”). In order for the seed to sprout and begin growing, temperatures must remain between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which was generally the natural climate of then-Mesoamerica. The soil must be damp but not wet, as the cacao seedlings are prone to rot, (Stallsmith, “How to Grow Cocoa Beans.”). There must be a moderate amount of sun, however they can be grown either in the shade of the canopy of other trees or in direct sunlight (a topic that will be discussed later). In 1500 B.C. there was no technology to create these conditions artificially, thus making production at that time very difficult, inconsistent, and always subject to climate cycles.

After the cacao seedling has begun growing, it takes between four and five years to bear flowers and then pods. A single tree can have 6,000 flowers yet only naturally produce 20 cacao pods, which is an unfortunate discrepancy in potential yields. The cacao tree has a fruiting habit that produces both the flowers and the pods directly on the trunk, which is called cauliflory. Unlike other fruit trees, cacao is not pollinated by bees. Before artificial pollination was utilized, small flies called midges were the sole pollinators for cacao crops, which partially explains why the cacao tree produced so many flowers yet so few pods – less than 5% of the flowers are actually pollinated. Fallen leaves from the trees insulated the ground when rotting, keeping moisture in while simultaneously providing the perfect environment for midges to reproduce and thus continue to pollinate, (“Life Cycles of Cacao Pollinating Midges (Forcipomyia Spp.) and Some Notes on the Larval Behavior in the Laboratory.”). An image of the cacao flowers can be seen below. Once the cacao pods turn from purple to yellow to green, they are harvested from the tree, and then peeled to reveal the seeds. They are then dried, fermented, and ground, and finally the resulting product can be used for whatever purposes are intended. A single cacao tree lives for about 25 years on average, with 20 of those years being productive, (Martin, “04 Sugar and Cacao.”).

Fig 1. Theobroma cacao flowers and maturing pods on the trunk of a cacao tree

In the hundreds of years between 1500 B.C. Mesoamerica and modern-day Africa and South America, a lot has changed in the world. The attitude towards the production of most consumed goods in the world shifted from being solely focused on quantities and output to the acknowledgement that there must be a balance between output and sustainability. There has only been an increase in demand for cacao due to the increase in chocolate production and consumption worldwide, and unlike hundreds of years ago, we now face the problem of rapid climate change. It is critical that cacao farmers around the world shift their farming techniques to both maximize production while minimizing the negative impacts on the cacao laborers as well as the environment, (“A Strategy to Safeguard the Future of Chocolate.”).

Long ago, increasing cacao production meant bringing in more people to work the plantations. Now, we have technology and knowledge about effective pollination, fertilization, and tree growth patterns. In modern-day Ghana, cacao production is a huge part of the economy, as well as an critical source of income for both farmers and young adults who work on the farms. The Ghanian cacao-governing body, called COCOBOD, works to provide their farmers and the cacao workers with the knowledge and tools they need to maximize production, quality, and income while minimizing crop loss and damage to the environment, (“Ghana Cocoa Specification.”). In the video below, young Ghanians artificially pollinate cacao trees to increase the percentage of flowers that yield cacao pods.

Without the work of people like Derick Owusu, the cacao trees would naturally produce only a small fraction of the number of pods they do when they are artificially pollinated by humans, (COCOA HAND POLLINATION.) Although midges do still assist in the process, the flies don’t naturally have the ideal habitat they once did in Mesoamerica. Now, cacao farmers often sweep the dead leaves off of the ground underneath the trees to maintain paths in between the rows of crops. In the process of doing so, the moist, rotting environment that midges typically thrive in is destroyed, so human interference is now critical to the production of cacao pods.

A huge issue that our society deals with today is the excessive emission of carbon into the atmosphere. That, coupled with rapid worldwide deforestation, makes a detrimental combination. However, cacao trees could potentially help turn this rather depressing trend around. Theobroma cacao can be grown successfully in either direct sunlight or partial shade. Timothy Pearson, a carbon-emissions specialist for the non-profit company Winrock International, strongly believes that cacao grown in the partial shade of other trees is not only successful in producing cacao pods, but also helps the environment by storing more carbon, increasing biodiversity, and preventing needless deforestation, (Pearson, “How Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet.”)

Cacao being grown in full sun in Maui HI
Cacao being grown in partial shade in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa

Pearson claims that older varieties of cacao that were once grown in full sun in places like Mesoamerica are now succumbing to disease and drought. However in West Africa, where nearly 70% of the world’s cocoa is produced, the trees are flourishing. Under the canopies of other trees, they have become more tolerant of dry environments and are less susceptible to disease and weed growth. Pearson also argues that a grove of shade-grown cacao trees can store and process up to three times as much carbon as sun-grown trees.

However, not all cacao farmers abide by these earth-friendly, sustainable practices for cultivating their cacao. It takes money, resources, and labor to make this transition – commodities that many cacao farmers do not have access to. Yet with the help of organizations like COCOBOD in Ghana, it is possible to maximize the positive effect of cacao trees on the world. With the demand for cocoa beans only going up with time, it is critical that cacao plantations around the globe prioritize sustainability as ardently as they do production.


“A Strategy to Safeguard the Future of Chocolate.” Biodiversity International, October 17, 2012. https://archive.is/20130414081745/http://www.bioversityinternational.org/index.php?id=6817.

COCOA HAND POLLINATION. Ghana COCOBOD. Ghana: EMH Global LTD, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXe-xptz2Nk.

“Ghana Cocoa Specification.” Ghana Cocoa Board, COCOBOD. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://cocobod.gh/ghana_cocospesification.php.

Martin, Carla D. “01 Introduction.” University Lecture presented at the Chocolate, Culture, and The Politics of Food, Harvard University, January 29, 2020.

“04 Sugar and Cacao.” University Lecture presented at the Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Harvard University, February 19, 2020.

O’Connell, Kevin. “Improving the Sustainability of Cocoa Grown in West Africa.” World Cocoa Foundation, April 15, 2019. https://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/blog/improving-the-sustainability-of-cocoa-grown-in-west-africa/.

Pearson, Timothy. “How Chocolate Can Help Save the Planet.” Scientific American (blog), February 12, 2020. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-chocolate-can-help-save-the-planet/.

Stallsmith, Audrey. “How to Grow Cocoa Beans.” Blog forum. Hunker (blog), unknown. https://www.hunker.com/12001728/how-to-grow-cocoa-beans. howstuffworks.

Soria, S. de J., and Wirth, W.W. “Life Cycles of Cacao Pollinating Midges (Forcipomyia Spp.) and Some Notes on the Larval Behavior in the Laboratory.” Mosquito News, June, no. 2, 1977, pp. 288–289. Accessed via Hollis.

“The History of Chocolate,” n.d. https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-chocolate1.htm.


Picture: “Farm to Chocolate Factory Program in Hawaii.” ecolechocolat. https://www.ecolechocolat.com/en/hawaii-cacao.html

Eagle, Jenny. Picture: “Ivory Coast and Ghana agree to create Sustainable Cocoa Initiative.” Confectionarynews.com. June 4, 2017. https://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/06/05/Ivory-Coast-and-Ghana-agree-to-create-Sustainable-Cocoa-Initiative. Accessed March 24, 2020.