This Christmas, make sure your chocolate does not harm the planet


Edna Odhiambo
Climate change lawyer

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The holidays are here, and many of us are indulging in sweets, especially chocolate. But this seemingly innocuous guilty pleasure comes with a hidden cost: Chocolate production is devastating our forests.

We owe the addictive taste of chocolate to a small evergreen tree called cocoa. To make chocolate, cocoa seed pods are handpicked and split. Then cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted and melted. Finally, other ingredients like oil, sugar and milk are added to complete the process.

But where does cocoa come from? Cocoa trees do well in hot, humid climates and are commonly seen in the tropics. Today, about 70 percent of the global cocoa supply comes from West Africa. Ivory Coast is the world leader in cocoa production, followed by Ghana and Nigeria. And all these countries are sacrificing their precious forests to meet our insatiable demand for chocolate.

Ivory Coast, for example, has lost 80 percent of its forest cover in the past 50 years, mainly due to the expansion of cocoa farms. Natural soil has better nutrients than already farmed cocoa fields. This leads to forests being cleared on a regular basis to allow for cocoa cultivation. Deforestation related to cocoa farming not only leaves our planet without its lungs but also leaves wildlife, particularly elephants and chimpanzees, without an appropriate home.

Another ingredient often used in chocolate is palm oil. The oil palm is a very efficient crop, able to produce high quantities of oil over small areas of land almost all year round. However, just like cocoa, palm oil farming is causing severe deforestation, especially in the countries leading the production effort, namely Indonesia and Malaysia.

Forests play a critical role in stabilising our climate. They absorb excess greenhouse gases, filter pollutants, increase rainfall and control floods. They are home to 80 percent of biodiversity on land, and 1.6 billion people, or a fifth of the global population, rely directly on forests for their livelihoods.

During a climate emergency, we cannot afford to continue consuming a product that slowly destroys our best weapon against climate change.

The good news is that we do not have to give up our guilty pleasure. We can have our (chocolate) cake and eat it too. There are ways of producing and consuming cocoa and palm oil that are sustainable, and steps are being taken to make sure we can continue to enjoy chocolate without harming the planet.

This month, the European Union, the world’s leading cocoa consumer, passed legislation that guarantees that products sold within its borders will not be linked to the destruction or degradation of forests. From now on, companies doing business in Europe will have to issue due diligence certificates that show the exact source of their commodities. Any products linked to deforestation will be banned from being imported into the EU. In the coming year, most EU consumers will have a range of climate-friendly chocolate choices on their shelves.

There are also other ongoing efforts to ensure cocoa production does not harm the environment and contribute to climate change. The Cocoa & Forests Initiative, for example, is a commitment by cocoa-producing countries and top chocolate and cocoa companies to end deforestation, restore forests and stop the conversion of forestland for cocoa production. The initiative was launched in 2017, and its objectives are already being implemented in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Thirty-three companies accounting for about 85 percent of global cocoa usage have released action plans to implement the objectives of this initiative.

There are also several international certification schemes for cocoa, such as Organic, Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance, that allow consumers to know the products they are buying have been produced sustainably without harming the environment or exploiting labourers.

As consumers, we are very powerful. We can use our purchasing power to promote sustainable production that balances profitability with protecting the environment and safeguarding labour rights.

So this year, do something for the planet and do not allow your festive chocolate to contribute to environmental degradation and climate change. If you are still planning to buy some chocolate for the holiday season, make sure every item is sustainable, so that your purchase is a treat not only for communities dependent on sustainable cocoa farming but also for the entire planet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Edna Odhiambo
Climate change lawyer
Edna Odhiambo is a climate change lawyer, communicating sustainability solutions through speaking and knowledge management. Her advisory work spans 33 countries across four continents in diverse sectors, including climate finance, clean energy, transport and natural climate solutions.

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