Tag Archives: sustainability in 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.

Plant and Community Disease: Impediments in Small Scale Cacao Farming.

In the summer after my sophomore year of college, I conducted research on sustainable development in Costa Rica and Panama. This was one of the most enriching academic and personal experiences in my life to-date, especially the week that I spent living on a small-scale cacao farm in Mastatal, Costa Rica. That magical week involved working and eating alongside the absolutely lovely family that has owned the land its cacao trees for generations.

Mastatal is a unique agricultural community that lies in the south west region of the San Jose Province. It is a town that has always relied on agriculture, usually on a small scale. It has never industrialized and found a comfortable place in the larger Costa Rica economy, but since the turn of the century it has revived its economy through agricultural tourism, or agritourism.

Wait… what is agritourism?

Agricultural tourism is a subset of the larger trend toward ecotourism, a style of travel that involves leaving a small footprint on the environment, while connecting on a deeper level with it. Agritourism involves staying and working on a farm with the goal of getting closer to the source of the food you eat. This trend is generally being driven by global changes in food and dining, climate and energy conservation, health and wellness, and heritage conservation (Ciglovska, 278). Four farms in Mastatal, all focusing on different products, use agritourism as a source of additional income, hosting visitors, giving tours, making local dishes, and putting the travelers to work. Where I was staying, La Iguana Chocolate, was the main attraction, because everybody loves chocolate.

The group of students that I was a part of worked alongside the family that owned the cacao operation, while conducting field research on the budding agritourism industry in the small town as a whole. The work was hard but rewarding and gave me closer insight into the process of harvesting cacao and making chocolate, as well as the struggles of a small scale producer. Chocolate is made from the beans inside a fruit that grows from a tree, something that I was unaware of before my time on the farm. Upon arriving we were given a full tasting, one of the services that is offered to travelers each day. The couple that operates the farm greeted us with an interesting looking fruit that reminded me of a squash, and when they broke it open it was filled with small white fuzzy pods. They encouraged us to take one of the pods and eat the white fuzzy material off of it, and that was the moment that I found my favorite fruit. Yes, cacao is my favorite fruit. It sounds crazy… most people have no idea where the cocoa powder and butter that makes their favorite treat comes from, or that the raw fruity product could be so delicious. For those of you struggling to believe me, I have attached a video of a tasting. That first sight of the cacao pods was only the beginning of my time spent with them over the course of my time at La Iguana.

The most rewarding part of the whole week was the time spent in the fields harvesting the cacao pods. The work is eye-opening in its difficulty. We started our day with a quick breakfast at around seven o’clock in the morning before packing lunch and all the necessary tools onto the back of a single horse. We then set off through the back of the immediate property, down a dirt, and then mud, road for about a mile until we came to a river. Shoes were removed and the river was crossed, the small dog accompanying us was carried, of course. After we scaled a large hill we finally reached the edge of a forest, situated in higher altitude than we were previously. The walk alone was enough to exhaust the group, but it is highly necessary that the cacao trees are in the perfect environment to grow effectively. Cacao trees need to be in an area with high moisture but good draining, usually shaded by other trees and surrounded by a heavy underbrush of leaves. This is knowledge that has been passed down for generations, since the first cacao tree was brought to Mastatal. These very particular conditions were perfect in this hillside forest, and the journey to reach the trees is absolutely worth it when the trees are highly productive. This is especially true when your livelihood depends on it.

Once we got to the vast area of cacao trees there was important training that needed to take place. There were several strains of cacao growing in the field. This meant that the ideal color and shape of the pods that were ready for harvest could differ from tree to tree. Green pods turn a deep yellow, but yellow pods turn a bright red. Clearly there is room for confusion. Beyond that, any pod that has black spots on it must be taken down despite its level of ripeness. The black spots are a disease that can ruin an entire harvest, Moniliophthora roreri, but more on that later. We also had to learn how to properly use the sharp tools to cut the pods from the trunks of the cacao trees. It seemed like at every step in the process of growing and harvesting cacao there was only one very specific way of doing things. While we may have been a bit unprepared, we were set off into the forest, machete and large hemp bag in hand.

Aside from the cliff of mud and rushing river that had to be passed to reach the crop, the work itself was awfully dangerous as well. Costa Rica is home to the Fer-de-Lance, an incredibly venomous viper who likes to live in underbrush… underbrush much like that required to grow cacao. Some of the pods are also out of reach, making climbing a tree with a machete in hand necessary. Once our bags were full with pods, we hauled them to the center of the forest and all dumped them out to extract the beans. While working on the pods, we chatted with the family about how they got started in cacao, and what the biggest challenges have been in making a living from the crop.

Pile of cacao pods from our harvest. Black pods have the Monilio disease and may not be useable.

While roughly two thirds of the worlds cacao production happens in West Africa, the plant is indigenous to Central and South America, an area that produces only five percent of the worlds cacao today (Leissle, 16). This is due to the colonial exportation of the production means to an area that was understood as having cheap and abundant labor that could support the booming chocolate industry. La Iguana is one of the few farms still producing cacao in the Mastatal area. We were told that cacao trees were brought to the area in the middle of the twentieth century because the Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture saw it as an opportunity to breathe life into the economy of the area. In essence, small scale subsistence and fruit farmers were forced to change their production techniques and land use to cater to cacao. Encouraging shaded agro-ecosystems like cacao also “provide a promising means of addressing the challenges of creating a forest‐like habitat for tropical biodiversity in a rapidly deforested landscape, while simultaneously providing a lucrative crop for local agricultural communities” (Phillips‐Mora et al.).

However, many of the farmers that were planting cacao in Mastatal had to stop in the mid-90s when Monilio, the fungal disease discussed above, was spread through the area. We were told that there was no concrete understanding of how the disease came to the area, perhaps on the clothes of a traveler studying cacao. It was clear that this disease could cause hardship that seemed unsurmountable. It was well known that Monilio could be destroy long-term economic viability if even one yield was infected (Evans et al.). After the disease initially hit the La Iguana farm, they could not get enough pure cacao pods and had to revert to selling only fruit from their smaller fruit farm for a living. A highlight is that even in pods with black spots covering most of the fruit, it is possible that the fungus has not yet reached the beans on the inside, and the cacao is still useable.

A drawing I did for the farm as a parting gift. It reads “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” in reference to Monilia on cacao.

While La Iguana has implemented a few techniques to diminish the impact of the Monilia on their crop that has allowed them to maintain good harvests, there have been other struggles for the small farm in establishing a sustainable business model. The largest struggle for them, as well as the other farms shifting towards an agritourism model, was attracting the right crowds of people. The research that I ultimately produced from my time there looked at the marketing techniques of each of these farms, and how they are perceived by the surrounding community. I found that the initial launch of these farms as tourist destinations brought the wrong kind of people to the town, creating a tension between the farms and other locals. Jarkko Saarinen is a scholar who has done extensive research in the field, and he made a similar generalization that “high development goals of rural tourism may separate rural communities and tourism actors, which can cause economic and social conflicts, insecurity and locally unwanted changes in rural landscapes.” However, once La Iguana was able to control the crowds they were attracting, and their ability to bring new people to the area started having a positive impact on the greater community, they reached a new level of stability and social sustainability.

However, both the control of tourists coming to eat chocolate from the source, and the control of Monilio are ongoing battles for La Iguana Chocolate as well as other small scale cacao farmers in the region. I am infinitely grateful for the time I was able to spend there, and the friends I made in Mastatal. The knowledge that I gained from living and working in a small agricultural town going through a beautiful economic transformation will allow me to better navigate these communities in the future and work with them on their long term development and sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.

Works Cited:

Evans, Harry C., et al. “What’s in a Name: Crinipellis, the Final Resting Place for the Frosty Pod Rot Pathogen of Cocoa?” Mycologist, vol. 16, no. 4, Nov. 2002, pp. 148–52. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/S0269915X02004093.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity, 2018.

Phillips‐Mora, W., et al. “Biodiversity and Biogeography of the Cacao (Theobroma Cacao) Pathogen Moniliophthora Roreri in Tropical America.” Plant Pathology, vol. 56, no. 6, 2007, pp. 911–22. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1365-3059.2007.01646.x.

Saarinen, Jarkko. “Traditions of Sustainability in Tourism Studies.” Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 33, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 1121–40. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.annals.2006.06.007.

All photos were taken by Taylor Gates.