Chocolate once came from the wild but looking at the colourfully wrapped chocolate bars that are present almost everywhere nowadays, this may be hard to believe. The journey starts with the theobroma cacao tree, which best grows wild and chaotic in a forest with a rich understory and a variety of inhabitants like insects and birds. Foraging cacao fruits from the tree was a normal way of living – until we got lazy. The domestication of food marked the first modification that our ancestors made to the natural balance. Today, cacao is one of the most manipulated species in the world.
Chocolate is in decline – but not those who love it!
The transformation of cacao did not stop at modifying plants. Soon, we started adding more ingredients to our cacao. Vast fields of cane sugar and factories full of diary cows are now needed to dumb down the essential aromas of natural cacao paste in order to get what we celebrate as chocolate today: a wild mix of carbohydrates, fats, sugar, milk and protein (go on, check the back of the chocolate package closest to you) all in the name of faster, cheaper and sweeter. The idea of commercial, ever present chocolate was born.
We can love the ever present choice of chocolate bars, bunnies, ice cream and cake all we want – the industrialisation process took more than it gave us in the last 100 years of chocolate. The need for more chocolate drives environmental damage further – mono-crop farming and genetic modifications being the two biggest predators in a formerly peaceful forest. Deforestation continues, and the great forests that protected our favourite treat are no longer able to grow like they used to. We have noticed this. We have noticed this on our 100 year-old rubber plantations in Papua New Guinea that our family worked on for two generations, and now we notice it in Ecuadorian cacao farms that are producing 30% less than they did five years ago when we first investigated the area.
Meanwhile, chocoholics are on the rise: the world’s population is heading towards 9 billion people by 2050 and my educated guess is that at least 99.9% of them will love chocolate. The buying mobility of ‘middle-classes’ now mean more people know about and want chocolate. And they want it now. Considering that chocolate has been commoditised down to the gram, is a diminishing resource, and that most people love it and eat it a lot, it seems impossible to work out the math of what a sustainable chocolate future is going to look like. There is no way that the ever-increasing appetite for chocolate and the ability for plantations 20 degrees north and south of the equator can meet every chocoholic’s needs. So how does an increasing chocoholic population and the dying of cacao trees go together?
The answer: Intergenerational Chocolate
We are hearing this word a lot: sustainability. It is actually a very unemotional and clear concept. It means that the impact I make today, with my cacao farming standards, will not diminish the opportunities that my children, or our farmer families’ children will have. Meeting our needs without damaging future generations’ quality of life, that is the idea of intergenerational equity. This equity is measured looking at social, environmental, health and economic factors. It’s not a new idea, and it’s not my idea. Wikipedia explains it well: ‘Intergenerational equity in economic, psychological, and sociological contexts, is the concept or idea of fairness or justice in relationships between children, youth, adults and seniors, particularly in terms of treatment and interactions.’
In order to re-expand the base of what we can eat and enjoy, we need to re-learn how our food and chocolate sources can be better selected from natural wild species. By understanding the process of domestication we can learn the importance of maintaining genetic diversity, even within a certain set of plant species that currently dominate our global food system; like cacao and sugar, for example. Cacao development in the early 1500s in South America teach us that genetic diversity is the key to un-tapping opportunities to overcome disease, pests, and possibly even weather conditions like flood and drought.
Using the available knowledge about cacao and growing techniques wisely is one part. The other big question is for you: considering everything, would you describe the sweet part of your shopping list as sustainable?