If you’re a member of the Cacao Lab community, or have even found this article through a related internet search, you’re probably a fan of Cacao products. These products encompass the wellness-focused whole-Cacao movement, of which Cacao Lab is a part, as well as European-style chocolate, which we also love. But for all the happiness Cacao can provide, there is a price we must acknowledge: mass chocolate production has come with a steep environmental price. As is the story throughout much of the agricultural industry, short-sighted growth models and profit-maximization schemes have created a product that’s ecological impact makes its enjoyment bittersweet.
A main tenet of the ceremonial Cacao community is environmental stewardship, and for us to consider Cacao ceremonial-grade, we require that it is produced in the maximum symbiosis possible for its native environment. With this said, there are still environmental costs to producing and packaging any food, and our small-scale growing methods must work to counter-balance the damage of mass chocolate production. So, how can we work as a community, both producers and consumers, to lessen the impact of a product we hold so dear? Here are four ways.
Focus not on how far the Cacao travels, but how it is grown
A shining truth of the eco-conscious community is that environmental stewardship means eating local, whenever possible. This is a great standard to live by, but when we pull back a little, we see that the transportation aspect of most foods accounts for a fractional portion of their carbon footprint. So, what often gets the most attention has a relatively little impact. What, then, has the greatest impact? It’s about what you eat and how it’s grown.
Generally, eating lower on the food chain lessens the environmental impact of your diet, and thus your “dietary carbon footprint”. For instance, you can get about 40 kilograms of lentils for about the same carbon impact as 1 kilogram of lamb! When it comes to Cacao, well, it’s quite low on the food chain, sure. And it’s naturally vegan, so we’re avoiding the heavy climate costs (and moral issues) that come with animal pasturing. But does that make it a sustainable food crop? The answer is: it depends.
If we’ve passed the what test with Cacao, we must now consider the how test. Mass Cacao production for the international confectionary industry is actually one of the most environmentally detrimental food operations. Because Cacao can only be grown between certain latitudes, the world’s supply of suitable land for its production is rather constricted. Complicating the matter, much of the native lands of Cacao throughout Central and South America are difficult to farm due to their mountainous geography. A corporate solution has been to spread to more exploitable lands in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Thousands of acres of converted land are planted with Cacao trees whose water and shade requirements are not easily met by the environment. This produces soil erosion, water shortages, and over-farming that is sometimes devastating to the land.
What can one do to counteract this giant’s footprint upon the environment? Short answer: don’t buy mass-market chocolate. Long answer: plenty else.
One of the impact goals of Cacao Lab has been to find producers that are working with the land, rather than against it. If you hold this vision in your sights, the environmental impact of the Cacao you consume can fall nearer to that of the humble lentil. Cacao trees raised in their natural habitat, using the water cycle they have evolved with over thousands of years, and planted amongst other native plants and trees to provide soil enrichment and the necessary shade for Cacao pods to fruit (an agroforestry system) have proven a most efficient path. Nature has worked out best practices for these plants to thrive long before we started harvesting them, so we look to the wisdom of nature to help us farm Cacao responsibly.
Keep your Cacao whole, and keep it dark
Chocolate in popular consciousness often takes the shape of that delectable milk chocolate bar—long on sugar and milk, short on Cacao. Nothing wrong with a classic, and 8 year-old me would fight you for a milk chocolate bar. But with age comes (some) wisdom, and it’s evident that the additives in “big chocolate” are a huge part of the environmental quandary.
Sugar, milk, and often palm oil serve to cut high-cost Cacao into higher-profit milk chocolate. Sugar has its own environmental and ethical issues beyond its unhealthy reputation. Soil erosion, processing gas emissions, and wastewater run-off that leads to widespread fish die-off are some primary environmental impacts.
The milk powder used in milk chocolate comes from the most resource intensive agriculture on Earth: cattle raising. While the 12% or so of a chocolate bar that is milk powder may not seem like much, when we pan out to the industrial scale, it has quite a large ecological footprint. Milk chocolate flavors can still be enjoyed using milk alternatives such as coconut milk powder, and drinking Cacao can be made creamier by all manner of more ecologically friendly “mylks” with much lower environmental impacts.
Perhaps the big bad secret of the commercial confectionary industry is the use of palm oil as a partial replacement for the more expensive Cacao butter. Palm oil plantations have been linked to massive environmental destruction in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Brazil. In Indonesia, giant tracts of primary forest have been clear-cut to make way for oil palm plantations, decimating the ecosystem. Worse still, the slash-and-burn clearing method produces incredible amounts of smoke pollution that seasonally blanket the region and push far around the globe.
While these impacts can seem prohibitive, they need not hinder your Cacao enjoyment. As a rule, the closer to 100% Cacao you get, the more eco-friendly the product—if the Cacao is raised and processed in a responsible way, that is.
Buy your Cacao in Bulk
While transportation is a surprisingly small part of the total output of many food goods, it is still important to consider volume in purchasing. The more product you fit in a package, the lower the per pound impact will be. While this is a good rule to take on, it does not always fit our needs as buyers: sometimes it makes sense to buy in bulk, sometimes it must necessarily come in a small package.
As a company, it is a tricky balance for us to offer portions appropriate for many different occasions and uses, but this always at top-of-mind for us. We are working to build better bulk options, and some of them have us really excited.
Most recently, we have begun partnering with New York City area café partners such as Ambrosia to provide bulk granulated Cacao which our community members can purchase as refills directly at the store. This allows people to bring their own containers (like our reusable tins) and stock up on their Cacao without the packaging and shipping impact of ordering direct from us. We are continuing to build partnerships for this offering throughout NYC, but the vision is to broaden out to as many major metro areas as we can.
One day, we hope that Cacao can be purchased as coffee often is—in bulk and before your eyes with as little excess packaging as possible.
Reduce the Impact of Cacao Packaging
The elephant in the room around a packaged food is the packaging itself. It is an unfortunate necessity of the modern food supply that many, many goods come packaged.
With regard to Cacao, the upside is that it stays shelf-stable for an incredibly long time, so buying in larger quantities and keeping it fresh in a container at home is always an option. But what can we do to reduce the packaging impact of the very package these larger quantities come in?
In addition to our café partnerships, we are working on compostable packaging alternatives to lessen our impact. While these aren’t a 100% solution, they are a step in the right direction. By switching all of the products we can to compostable packaging, while employing reusable packaging for many of the others, we are working toward delivery methods that incorporate our ethos at the farm as much as possible: work with the environment, not against it.