In the run-up to Christmas, when chocolate consumption hits its peak, our article sheds light on the pressing problems and some promising solutions in the cocoa industry.
Chocolate consumption increases worldwide during the Christmas period. Luxembourg is certainly no exception. As one of Europe’s leading chocolate consumers – currently ranked fourth per capita – Luxembourg enjoys the festive season with a particular fondness for this sweet temptation. This season, however, it is not only traditional chocolate delights that are taking centre stage, but sustainable and ethical considerations should not be ignored either. In the following article, we want to look at the most pressing ecological and ethical problems behind our favourite sweet treat and present a number of possible solutions that are currently in the discussion.
CCN-51: A threat to biodiversity?
The hybrid cocoa variety CCN-51 (Colección Castro Naranjal 51) is a prime example of the dilemma between economic efficiency and ecological responsibility. Developed in the 1960s in response to the “witches’ broom” fungus that attacks cocoa trees, CCN-51 is characterised by its high yield and resistance to pests. While these properties offer cocoa farmers a kind of safety net, another, far more threatening consequence is coming into focus: the threat to biodiversity.
CCN-51 is predominantly grown in monocultures, which not only depletes the soil of nutrients, but also suppresses other cocoa varieties. The resistance of the variety to changing climatic conditions also raises questions about what could happen as climate change progresses. Could CCN-51, originally intended as a solution, ultimately turn out to be a global threat to cocoa cultivation?
Palm oil: the hidden culprit
Palm oil has long been a controversial topic of discussion when it comes to the manufacture of cosmetic products. However, the natural fat, which is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm, is also frequently found in industrially manufactured chocolate products. Here it is used as an inexpensive alternative to higher-quality cocoa butter. Although premium chocolate generally does not contain palm oil, its increased use in mainstream chocolate products contributes to deforestation.
Between 1995 and 2017, global palm oil production quadrupled, an increase that is not only attributable to the chocolate industry, but also to other food-industries and, of course, cosmetics. The increased cultivation of the oil palm has demonstrably contributed to increased deforestation and contributes significantly to the ecological footprint of the chocolate industry.
Precarious working conditions in the countries of origin
Problematic working conditions still prevail in cocoa-growing regions, particularly in West Africa. Despite various initiatives to combat child labour, it remains a serious problem. In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, which together produce around 70% of the world’s cocoa, an estimated 1.5 million children work in hazardous conditions on the plantations. Many of these children are abducted from neighbouring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso and forced to work on the plantations, where they are confronted with heavy physical labour, the use of dangerous tools and the application of pesticides.
In Brazil, another important cocoa-producing country, child labour and slavery on cocoa plantations are also a serious issue. Thousands of children and young people work there under harsh conditions, often without the opportunity to attend school.
Despite the efforts of organisations such as the Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group (CLCCG) and various industry initiatives, the problem of child labour and slavery in the cocoa industry persists. While the chocolate industry has acknowledged the existence of child labour and slavery in its supply chains, responsibility for ending these practices remains contested. Possible solutions include fair trade initiatives and stricter regulations.
These circumstances emphasise the need for increased efforts by all stakeholders in the supply chain to promote and implement sustainable and ethical practices in cocoa farming.
A new EU regulation: A possible solution?
The EU has responded to these problems. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 420 million hectares of forest were lost worldwide between 1990 and 2020 – an area larger than the EU itself. The Regulation 1115 of 31 May 2023 aims to curb raw materials and products associated with deforestation and forest degradation and to promote sustainability in the cocoa and palm oil industries, among others.
The regulation affects companies, forest owners, traders and farmers within the EU who sell or import the raw materials listed in the regulation (cocoa, palm oil, coffee, cattle, wood, soya or rubber). From now on, they must submit a due diligence declaration guaranteeing that the product in question does not originate from areas deforested after 31 December 2020 and has not caused any further forest damage. In addition, compliance with the respective laws of the country of origin must be evidenced.
After the regulation came into force on 29 June 2023, the companies concerned will have a transitional period of 18 months (24 months for smaller companies) until its full application on 30 December 2024.
Further solution approaches
With the “Bean to Bar” concept, many smaller, artisanal chocolate manufacturers in Luxembourg have been offering a sustainable and high-quality alternative to industrial chocolate for quite some time. With this label, the producer guarantees to handle the entire production process itself, from the raw cocoa bean to the finished chocolate. This not only guarantees the quality of every single step of the process, but by cutting out middlemen, the production conditions at the cocoa farmers remain transparent and unnecessary supply chains are avoided.
A closer look behind the scenes of a Luxemburgish company that follows the “bean to bar” production philosophy can be found in the upcoming print edition of KACHEN magazine. (to be published on 6 March 2024)
The bottom line is that the cultivation of cocoa beans and the production of chocolate need to be rethought in order to protect both the environment and workers’ rights. Initiatives such as sustainable farming practices, the promotion of agroforestry and the use of alternative ingredients could help move the cocoa industry towards a more sustainable future.
Overall, the situation in the cocoa industry highlights the need for a comprehensive approach that takes both environmental and social aspects into account. The coming years will show whether the aforementioned EU regulation guarantees this. At the very least, it is a clear signal that has been sent out, not least due to the growing awareness amongst consumers.
At the moment, it does indeed look as if the industry is moving in a more sustainable direction. In order to continue this positive trend, all stakeholders must continue to pull together and, above all, be prepared to make compromises.