The Chocolate Tree

By  | January 23, 2009 | 0 Comments | Filed under: uncategorized

The tree is the epitome of balance; a symbol of growth and stability. It reaches high into the sky throughout its lifetime, yet it roots itself firmly into the ground. Trees give us oxygen; they filter pollution from air and water, they provide us with medicines, spices, teas and other foods…all for our taking. Man is well aware of the fact that the more trees we have on this planet, the better off we will be, but unfortunately this fact is so easily lost to us through our acts of living.

This story is about a particular tree; the ‘theobroma cacao’. Although not a very large tree, on a global perspective it is certainly one of the most coveted. ‘Theobroma’ means ‘food of the gods’; and of course ‘cacao’, the source of cocoa, is what all good chocolate is made of.

Chocolate has the power to please. It affects our bodies through the mood-controlling chemicals of serotonin, endorphins and of course, phenyl ethylamine – also known as the love molecule. For this reason, chocolate has become a traditional gift to many young women, particularly on Valentines Day, when it is presented in pretty boxes decorated in red ribbons and hearts, with attached poems pleading “Please be mine”.

Chocolate also contains caffeine, antioxidants and high levels of chemicals called phenolic compounds, which are actually good for your heart. The scientific evidence that shows chocolate having other medicinal benefits continues to grow.

So, with all this goodness, how can the world’s quest for chocolate turn out so bad?
Well…I guess you could say that sometimes we just can’t see the forest for the trees.

The cacao tree grows naturally in tropical rainforests as an under-story tree, needing the shade of companion trees to shelter it from the harsh sun and wind. Well before the Americas were discovered, the Mayans understood the gift in this tree. Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortez too understood, and brought the fruits of this tree back across the ocean where it quickly became popular…once a bit of sugar was added.

With demand for chocolate growing in the civilized world, so too did the size and number of cacao plantations throughout the rainforests of Central and South America and Africa. Currently West Africa produces 70% of the world’s cocoa. North America today alone, consumes about 5 kilograms of chocolate per person, per year – a credible sign that world demand is high.

The cacao tree’s habitat, the rainforest, makes high-yield farming difficult. In an attempt to increase those yields, the trees have long since been hybridized to be able to withstand full sun, which introduced the production of cocoa to intensive farming and monoculture by the removal of all over-story trees and interfering growth.

Once out of its element, the natural pest protection and fertilization system the tree enjoyed in the rainforest was gone, and as a result, third world farmers now rely on the heavy use of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers to protect their yields.

The hybrid’s shorter lifespan of 30 years compared to the natural tree’s 50 to 100 years also presents a problem. The turnover in trees quickly depletes the soil of all its nutrients. With the prohibitive costs of synthetic fertilizers and the ever increasing resistance of insects to the pesticides, the frustrated farmer is forced to abandon his spent plantation and move to a fresh location – by way of the clearing more rainforest.

A vicious cycle has been created over the years. As more and more land is being cleared to provide world demand, the habitat for the natural cacao tree – the stronger tree – is destroyed; thus the beginning of its inevitable journey to extinction, leaving sole reliance on the highly, disease-prone, short-lived variety for world supply.

The situation has become so serious that scientists have warned that if the current, unsustainable production of cocoa continues, within 5 to 10 years there will be a severe shortage. Signs of this imminent shortage have been evident for years now, but the will, education and the pocketbook of a third world farmer dictates his methods of farming. We in our world must see the reality of their lives in their world, to understand what propels this inevitable train wreck. Unfortunately most of us are oblivious to the true impact of the existence of chocolate.

A ray of light in all this darkness however has appeared from Mars; Mars Inc. that is. Perhaps a necessary survival tactic on the part of the biggest chocolate company in the world, but for whatever the reason, their intervention will help with the dwindling supply of chocolate. It will also help with the larger and more serious problem; the world’s shrinking rainforests.

Mars Inc has invested 10 million to develop varieties of cacao trees that can withstand drought, disease and poor harvests; something third world farmers have not been able to do. They plan to breed genetically superior specimens to replace the inferior. These new high-yield trees would encourage the farmers to plant on existing lands, thus reducing the pressures on rainforests. The company is also actively encouraging the planting of other tree/crops along side the cacao to give it more of the natural shade required, and to provide a year-round harvest that would discourage slash and burn agricultural practices.

The story of theobroma cacao is a good example of how the blessings of one little tree have become a curse to a whole forest. The realities of what it took to put that little Hershey’s Kiss in our hands was somehow lost along the way; somewhere between that little tree in the rainforest and our love for chocolate.




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