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How Iconic Chocolate Brands Are Improving Conditions for West African Farmers

Eating more chocolate may be good for the world.

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If you are like me and believe chocolate is one of the five major food groups, you also may think of it as a guilty pleasure due to its caloric content.

The good news: A few pieces of dark chocolate don’t have much sugar or calories. The bad news: Depending on what company makes it, you probably should feel guilty about eating chocolate. The reality is, you and the companies that are making it may not be paying enough to the farmers who produce the cacao.

Nearly 70 percent of the cacao in the world today is produced in West Africa, and most cocoa farmers in the region live on less than $2 a day.

Cocoa beans were discovered in the South American rainforest thousands of years ago. The Mayans worshiped the cocoa tree (cocoa in Mayan means “the food of the gods”). The cocoa grows in pods. In each foot-long pod, there are cocoa beans that are extracted and roasted. The beans are then processed into a liquor that becomes either cocoa solids, butter or blocks of raw chocolate.

Nearly 70 percent of the cacao in the world today is produced in West Africa, and most cocoa farmers in the region live on less than $2 a day. Most raise their families while living under the poverty level. Making life even more difficult, these farmers face serious environmental challenges: Deforestation has created drought conditions, they have limited access to potable water and there is no infrastructure for managing waste. In addition, their cocoa trees are past prime and not very productive, reducing their harvest and the quantity of beans available. For all these reasons, many farmers’ children are leaving farming.

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But conditions are beginning to change. Chocolate companies are joining with nonprofit organizations to help improve the conditions for the farmers, so their farms are more productive, generate more income and have better social and environmental conditions.

Iconic brands such as Twix and M&M’s are part of Mars’ Sustainable in a Generation Plan which aims to help cocoa farms become more sustainable. The plan includes a commitment of $1 billion for farmers, partnerships with Rainforest Alliance (see cocoa farmer Adrien talk about his work in the video above) and Fair Trade, and a sophisticated implementation plan which aims to train farmers in sustainable practices, help them replace old trees with more productive ones and eliminate hazardous child labor and deforestation.

Many other brands, from Hershey to Newman’s Own Organic, are also working to improve environmental, social and economic conditions for the farmers because they recognize that farmers going out of business means that they will go out of business.

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Creating our chocolate fix is a long and delicate process for farmers and purveyors, as befitting the food of the gods. We can indulge ourselves and give the producers the respect they are due through buying chocolate that is certified by Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade or is part of a sustainable cocoa chain.

I will leave you with this thought: Americans only eat 9 pounds of chocolate a year compared to the Swiss annual consumption of 19 pounds. So we have room to grow—sustainably.

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