Is chocolate sustainable?
Since arriving at ETH Zurich in January this year, I have been happily confronted with the thriving chocolate culture of Switzerland. As a Belgian, with roots in a chocolate culture, I quickly picked up on the ‘chocaholic’ tendencies of my new colleagues, friends and acquaintances.
I was also amazed about the amount of research being done on cocoa/chocolate here in Switzerland, and admittedly, I’ve somewhere jumped on the boat of chocolate research. However, I recently started having some questions regarding the sustainability of this passion for chocolate that I share with my fellow inhabitants of this beautiful country.
When we discuss the sustainability of certain food products, we need to take a look across the whole food value chain. Hence, we investigate how sustainable the production of the basic product is (in this case cocoa); we see how sustainably the product is processed; how many kilometers the product travels between production and consumption; how much and by whom the product is consumed; if the product is of high nutritional quality.
A critical look at the food value chain
Several questions come to mind when thinking about chocolate and the world food system. Some are simple ones. For instance: how is cocoa produced? processed? retailed? Other questions have less clear answers: Could the land used for cocoa production (8.8 million hectares worldwide) be used for more nutritious food? Is chocolate even food? And even if your answer is yes to the previous question: is chocolate a necessary food? Would we be deprived if we would not eat 12 kilograms of chocolate per year (this is the average consumption per capita in Switzerland)? Does it make sense that Switzerland and Belgium are the leading chocolate producing countries while all the cocoa is produced several thousands of kilometers to the south? The answers to those questions are not a straightforward “yes” or “no”, but some reflection and alternative options are appropriate, I think.
In the last few years, the terms “flexitarian” and “demitarian” have become popular because beef production is inherently not the most sustainable, especially due to sky-high greenhouse gas emissions associated with it, but also since not everyone is willing to become a vegetarian. Thus, we do not need to eat meat every day, but we can cut our consumption in half (i.e. “demi”) or reduce it to once in a while (i.e. "flexi"). A parallel can be drawn with chocolate: 12 kilograms per year is probably unnecessary, but most of us would like a piece of chocolate once in a while. In December, we all enjoy a chocolate Samichlaus or Santa Claus, but does every store and bakery need to be stocked to the ceiling with them?
Making chocolate more sustainable
Since we will probably not all give up chocolate, cocoa trees will remain in the tropical agricultural landscape. But instead of growing monocultures we could design more diversified cocoa agroforestry systems (i.e. growing the cocoa in the shade of a diverse set of trees that provide a range of different products, e.g. fruit, timber, etc.) in cooperation with local farmers. These systems have been shown to maintain cocoa production in the longer-term while having less negative impact on the environment.
Some argue that cocoa is a cash crop that provides income for smallholders. However, some of the smallholders could grow other high value, cash crops (e.g., vegetables) that could also feed the local population with greatly needed nutrition. Furthermore, processing of cocoa into chocolate could be done locally so that the added-value would provide more benefits to the local economy. And cocoa produced in Brazil would not be sold back to Brazilians as expensive chocolate after having traveled across the ocean and back. So no, chocolate is not sustainable, but it can be more than it is now.