Dark Secrets of the Chocolate Industry

In the previous blogs, we talked about one of the more well-known green/ethical labels, Fairtrade, as well as seeing what it measures. In this blog, we talk about the problem at the heart of one of our favourite foods – chocolate.

Chocolate or its raw material cocoa can only be grown in tropical countries and grown almost entirely via smallholder farms (small family run farms). The vast majority of the worlds cocoa comes from just 2 countries, Ghana and Ivory Coast. These 2 countries together produce approximately 65% of the worlds cocoa.

However, farmers in these 2 countries producing 2/3rds of the world’s chocolate are almost all extremely poor. Since the 1980s (inflation adjusted), cocoa prices have halved. Cocoa farmers average incomes were less than half the $2.40 per day deemed the cut off for extreme poverty. If you think about that closely then the farmers producing the vast majority of the worlds chocolate are earning less per day than the actual price of a single chocolate bar!

There are 2 serious and concerning issues within the chocolate industry. These are child labour and rife deforestation.

Child Labour

There are estimated to be approximately two million children working on cocoa farms in both Ghana and the Ivory Coast. While a large proportion of this child labour figure comes from family labour, there is believed to be a certain percentage of this figure from trafficked children from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso. Cocoa farming is particularly hazardous because cocoa pods are split with machetes and toxic chemicals are used within the process. Children are often having to carry extremely heavy loads with accidents being common.


Ivory Coast is losing its forests at a faster rate than any other African country – less than 4% of the country is now covered in rainforest. Once, 25% was. The ballooning global demand for chocolate means that if nothing is done, by 2030 there will be no forest left within Ivory Coast (see graph below). Another problem with this aspect is that around 40% of Ivorian cocoa is thought to come from inside officially protected areas, making it illegal!

Graph showing how the chocolate industry has contributed to tree cover loss in the Ivory Coast.

Farmers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast generally believe that recently deforested soil produces the biggest beans, so they remove the trees one by one, planting more cocoa as they go. However, there is a consensus that there is no need to rip up any new land to produce cocoa – yields in West Africa are less than a third of what could be achieved. Poor information for farmers and agricultural practices are one of the key drivers of deforestation. This is despite the fact that cocoa is a naturally shade-tolerant plant and evolved to grow under rainforest canopies, greatly increasing the length of productivity and aiding in resisting disease. The sheer amount of chocolate on the market is causing huge issues for these 2 countries forests.


The key cause which most analysts agree on is that the underlying cause for both this deforestation and child labour is extreme poverty. With average incomes in the cocoa farming sector around $1.20 per day, hiring sufficient labour is extremely difficult and therefore children are used (largely their own). With education poor and lack of resources for improved knowledge on better farming methods, land degradation will occur, and farmers will move into more fertile forest soil, clearing trees to get a short-term increase in yield.

Catch 22

If children were not available to be used on farms throughout the cocoa industry, the cocoa price would most likely rise to pay for adult workers. However, this would need enforcing and the low price of cocoa (particularly recently) has meant that the Ivorian and Ghanaian governments have no resources for this enforcement. A recent study from the Cocoa Barometer calculated that chocolate companies paid $4.7 billion less for their cocoa this year than last year due to the lower prices (more cocoa flooding the market and hence more forests cleared). If you didn’t notice that the price of your chocolate bar going down, that would be because it didn’t! So, someone is making good money from the low prices in cocoa but it’s not the farmers.

The next blog and on social media @lifestyleandethics – We will look at chocolate companies in relation to this article who are doing good for the planet and who you should be spending money on.

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