box of chocolateWhether we celebrate Valentine’s Day with friends and loved ones or just our own self-love, food and drink usually play a role, especially chocolate. Not that we need a special occasion to enjoy some chocolate but during the week of Valentine’s Day an estimated 58 billion pounds are sold equaling more than $1.5 billion. We may equate chocolate only with the major candy companies or our favorite chocolatier without thinking about the many hands that helped to get it on the shelf…and in our mouths.

Chocolate is all things global! The basic ingredients of any dark chocolate start with the cocoa bean as the chocolate liquor (liquid), cocoa butter and cocoa powder are derived from the bean. Even though cocoa was a native to the Americas and a valuable crop in the earliest South American cultures, today the majority is produced in tropical areas around the Equator. In fact, about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans come from four West African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, with the majority being produced by small farmers.

farmer picking cocoa podsThe increased consumption by worldwide chocolate lovers has improved the farm prices for these farmers but also highlights sustainability issues. The effects of warmer temperatures and drier weather conditions in recent years have compounded the problems traditionally associated with the typical farming methods of planting cocoa at random under thinned forest shade. This method relies solely on the fertility of the soil and the existing shade without good management practices to improve productivity. The limited ability to control pests and nourish the soil along with aging farms have led to deforestation activities.

But there is good news! The World Cocoa Foundation, a public private initiative, has been created in the past couple of years, pledging concerted efforts by the major chocolate companies, suppliers and cocoa-producing countries to meet the economic needs of farmers while addressing environmental challenges.

So as you pick up that piece of chocolate today or every day, think not only of the West African farmer but farmers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and parts of Asia that grow the sugar beets and sugar cane, respectively for sweetness in the product; the vanilla bean growers in Mexico, Indonesia, Madagascar or Tonga; and the U.S. dairy farmers and soybean farmers for the added milk products or the emulsifier, lecithin, that may be added.

Chocolate, like so many food products available to us, takes a lot of hands to produce. Enjoy your chocolate (in small amounts, of course) and know there’s a world of farmers that appreciate you. Send your love to all that grow our food!

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