ABC: This Valentine’s Day, Consider the Cacao Bean

Adelberts cacao pod

Welcome to All ’Bout Commodities (ABC), a new recurring feature in which we explore how our lives are benefited by the resources that come from Asia-Pacific — and how our actions affect people, wildlife and habitats half a world away.

This week in ABC, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, we delve into the world of the cacao bean — the product that serves as the basis for cocoa butter, cocoa powder and that magical substance known as chocolate. Where does this “food of the gods” come from? Who eats the most of it? And how does its growth and trade impact rainforests — and what is the Conservancy doing to make its production benefit Asia-Pacific’s people and habitats? Read on.

What it is: The cacao tree — an evergreen tree that ranges between 13 and 26 feet in height — grows orange, one-pound seedpods that each produce 20 to 60 cacao beans. Cacao trees start yielding their first seed pods at three or four years of age.

Where it grows: Cacao grows best as an understory tree in tropical forests at an altitude of between 1,000 and 2,300 feet above sea-level. The cacao tree’s range was originally confined to Mexico and the Amazon Basin, but European conquests in Latin American eventually led to the bean spreading to new geographies, including Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific.

How we use it: Well, there’s chocolate, for one. But different cultures use the cocoa bean in different ways. Cacao was originally harvested by early Mexican civilizations that even used the beans as currency. You’re more than likely familiar with at least a few of cacao’s modern-day uses. Chocolate bars, hot cocoa, mole sauces — cacao winds up in a wide variety of delicious things.

Who’s growing it: More than 3,000,000 tons of cacao beans are produced every year. The Ivory Coast is far and away the world’s biggest producer of cacao beans, and has been since 1978 — but Indonesia is 2nd (712,000 metric tons produced in 2011) and Papua New Guinea is 12th (39,400 metric tons produced in 2011).

Who’s consuming it: Americans eat roughly half of the world’s chocolate products: one estimate has us each eating roughly 11 pounds of chocolate per year. But in amount purchased, the Netherlands import the world’s highest dollar value of cacao beans ($2.1 billion in 2009 alone).

Cacao in Costa Rica

Five things you (maybe) didn’t know about cacao:

  • Cacao was given its botanical name, Theobroma cacao, by Carl Linnaeus — the founder of modern taxonomy — himself. Theobroma, derived from Greek, translates to “food of the gods” in English. Very appropriate.
  • Why is the word “cocoa” sometimes used interchangeably with “cacao?” Good question! Turns out that it’s the result of a spelling error made by English importers in the 18th century — about the time when cacao became all the rage in Europe.
  • Ever wonder why cacao is bad for pets? It’s because it contains xanthines — including theobromine (which, as you might be able to tell from the name, is found only in cacao) — which cats and dogs are unable to metabolize.
  • The biggest structure made out of chocolate (and yes, I’m surprised as you that there are any chocolate structures at all, but hey) was built in Melbourne, Australia. It was a 4,484-pound, 10-foot-tall Easter egg. Now you know.
  • It’s been calculated that roughly 17,000 Belgians work in the chocolate industry.

So what: Unfortunately, the practices employed in the cacao industry leave room for improvement. Many farmers of cacao beans — including some in Asia — live in poverty due to the low wages paid for both “wet” and dried beans: the environmental impacts of their farming operations are not front-of-mind, meaning that, in many countries, old-growth forest has been cleared to make way for cultivation. And because there’s such a large, global demand for chocolate, a blind eye is often turned on the cruel practices that accompany the bean’s production in many places (charges of slave labor are often leveled against West African cacao growers).

However, there’s now such a thing as Fair Trade-certified cacao — and the best thing you can do as a conscientious cacao consumer is to seek it out. Currently, less than one percent of the global supply of cacao beans is Fair Trade-certified, but that market share is growing, slowly but surely. (As a Seattleite, I have to put in a quick plug for Theo Chocolate, who make products featuring Fair Trade cacao from around the world. I can vouch for their quality, having eaten a (small) amount myself.)

What we’re doing: In the Adelbert Mountains of Papua New Guinea, the Conservancy has been working with the farmers who make up the Adelberts Conservation Cooperative Society — a collective of sustainable-minded farmers — to get their cacao beans Fair Trade-certified. The Cooperative produces 24 tons of cacao a year, and this new certification rewards the Cooperative’s diligent work around sustainability with significant price premiums the farmers wouldn’t receive otherwise.

The Cooperative is now looking for ways to further enhance the quality of its cacao beans through better post-harvest drying operations while increasing the quantity through intensification of cultivation rather than expansion into new lands.

Stay tuned for updates on where you can buy their chocolate, and remember: this Valentine’s Day, when you consume chocolate, your actions will affect Asia-Pacific rainforests more than you realize, for better and for worse. To find out more about how your actions link to the commodities provided by rainforests, check out this infographic.

[First image: Man in the Adelberts harvesting a cacao seed pod. First image source: Mark Godfrey/TNC. Second image: Cacao beans harvested in Costa Rica. Second image source: Ami Vitale.]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Man
    ind we never take time to consider what goes on before a product reaches our hands especially us americans we take it all for granted how many people suffer and how we destroy our planet for a second of joy shame on us.we need to take time and become responsible consumers

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