The Forest in Your Chocolate
Global demand for chocolate, not least during the holiday season, has devoured tropical forests where cocoa trees grow.
Now, lawmakers in the European Union, the world’s largest cocoa buyer, have vowed to import only what doesn’t destroy or degrade forests. It’s part of a landmark legislative package to address deforestation risks in the supply chains of several commodities: cattle, timber, coffee, rubber, soy, cocoa and palm oil. (Palm oil is also used to make chocolate.)
We have long known of the hidden costs of chocolate. Economists refer to those hidden costs as externalities, meaning that they are not counted in the actual price of the final product but are paid nonetheless, in this case by forests and the creatures who live in them.
So what do the E.U.’s efforts to curb forest loss mean for forests, farmers and those of us who love chocolate?
It’s the latest effort to clean up the chocolate supply chain.
It follows voluntary promises by big chocolate makers to save forests in the world’s cocoa-producing countries, led by Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia and Nigeria.
Deforestation has continued.
According to Trase, which tracks the impact of global commodities on forests, Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa exporter, has lost most of its tropical forests in the last half century. Between 2000 and 2019 alone, 2.4 million hectares of forest were cleared to make room for cocoa plantations.
The law would require tracing the bean.
Companies that import cocoa and sell chocolate in the 27-country bloc would have to trace the plot of land where their cocoa beans are grown and ensure that no forests were razed for their cultivation after 2020. Governments of countries where that chocolate is sold would have to carry out random checks.
Details of the legislation are being hammered out. It’s expected to be ratified by the European Parliament soon. Big companies would have to start complying by the end of 2024; smaller companies would have some more time.
Expect other countries, including the United States, to closely watch what happens with the E.U. law. “It will have a snowball effect,” said Anke Schulmeister, a forest policy specialist with the World Wildlife Fund.
It won’t be easy.
We spoke with Obed Owusu-Addai, a cocoa farmer in Ghana and a campaigner at EcoCare, a local nonprofit that works with farmers. He feared it would lead to a two-tier system, with a few farmers able to comply and sell at high prices and many more locked out of the supply chain.
Most farmers sell to a broker, which in turn sells to a big trading company.
“It’s the farmer who will lose, it’s the farmer who will bear the burden,” he said.
Farmers reap few benefits, anyway.
Cocoa prices have been falling steadily for decades. With rising inflation, including higher transportation costs, the people who grow it have fallen on ever-harder times.
Low prices create incentives for destroying more forest to produce more cocoa. A recent report by several nonprofit groups argued that raising the incomes of farmers would go a long way to protect forests.
Antoine Fountain, who heads a cocoa sector watchdog group called the Voice Network, says barely 5 to 6 percent of the price of a bar of chocolate goes to the farmer.
The governments of Ghana and Ivory Coast aren’t happy about the law.
Officials have said the tracing requirements are onerous. Our colleague in West Africa, Elian Peltier, told us lawmakers on both continents know the directive will be hard to implement, and each side has its own concerns.
“Europeans look at cocoa’s sustainability through deforestation, while Ivory Coast and Ghana look at it through farmers’ revenues,” he told us.
Cocoa-producing countries in the region need the European Union market as much as Europe needs its West African suppliers. The big trading companies hold the cards, though. They have so much cocoa stock they can wait it out until the governments of cocoa-producing countries are forced to sell at a low price.
Louisa Cox of Mars, the candy company, said the company’s goal is to be able to trace the beans they use from farm to store by 2025. The E.U. legislation can be a game-changer, she said, only if other big cocoa consuming countries follow suit.
Chocolate lovers can do at least two things.
You can learn how chocolate makers compare with each other on efforts to address deforestation, farmer incomes and the use of child labor by checking out the Chocolate Scorecard, compiled by advocates and academics.
You can also find out what your legislators think about efforts to clean up the chocolate supply chain. Democrats in the U.S. Senate proposed a 2021 bill that would restrict certain commodities to enter the market if they were grown on illegally deforested land. It did not win Republican support and went nowhere.
To our readers
The Climate Forward team will be taking this Friday and Tuesday off. Your next newsletter will appear on Friday Dec. 30. We wish you all Happy Holidays!
Essential news from The Times
A biodiversity deal: Roughly 190 nations meeting in Montreal struck an agreement to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s land and oceans.
A quiet fire season: A combination of well-timed precipitation and favorable wind conditions seemed to play a big role in taming wildfires in California this year.
Conservation paleobiology: Engineers lined a California river with concrete. Now, scientists are using the fossil record to help bring it back to life.
Lower solar subsidies: California regulators voted to significantly reduce the amount that utilities pay homeowners for solar energy they supply to the main grid.
Empty city centers: Many tech workers are still working from home, making San Francisco’s downtown one of the most deserted in the United States.
Making room for more cars: A plan to widen the New Jersey Turnpike to reduce congestion would cost over $10 billion. Some say that’s a bad use of limited public money.
The Luddite Club: These teenagers reject technology and social media as a form of liberation.
Equal rights for animals: In her new book, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that animals also deserve to pursue flourishing lives.
From outside The Times
Companies accused of environmental misdeeds have a new strategy: targeting critics with accusations of racketeering conspiracy, an investigation by The Intercept found.
NBC News explained how the race for a Covid vaccine enriched wildlife poachers and endangered a macaque species that is commonly used in drug studies.
The BBC reported that an asset management firm with close ties to Mark Carney, a United Nations envoy on climate finance, sold farms in Brazil that have been linked to deforestation.
National Public Radio showed how money from utilities in Florida and Alabama is flowing to local news outlets that attack the companies’ critics.
The Guardian showcased the winners of a competition in Australia that invited children to create artwork depicting threatened native animals.
Before you go: This might be a new age in Earth’s history
The official timeline of the planet’s history — from the oldest rocks to the rise of primates and all points before and since — could soon include a new age: The Anthropocene. The time of humans, nuclear weapons, human-caused climate change and the proliferation of plastics. A panel of experts has spent more than a decade deliberating on whether to declare this new epoch in geologic time. Now, the they’re voting on the proposal.