The Scary Truth About Chocolate

Give fairly traded chocolate for more ethical Halloweenery

The history of chocolate, “the food of the gods,” goes back at least 4,000 years. For most of chocolate’s history, its aficionados enjoyed it as a light, bitter beverage or food additive. Then came a sweet revolution. The once-pungent chocolate evolved into a sweet treat, making its way into the halls of emperors and monarchs as an aristocratic nectar. (Legend has it that 16th-century Aztec emperor Montezuma consumed three gallons of chocolate per day to increase his libido. No one knows if it’s true, but really, who’s going to argue with Montezuma?)

Chocolate comes from the cacao bean, more commonly referred to as cocoa. Cocoa trees grow in hot, rainy tropical regions near the equator, where lush vegetation provides much-needed shade for the trees. Cocoa trees are beautiful, blossoming even under a heavy canopy. The leaves are smooth, oblong, and deep green. Primary growing regions are Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Cocoa is a delicate crop. Farmers must be highly skilled and experienced to cultivate it. But for all the work and effort, most cocoa farmers around the world see very little reward from a highly profitable international cocoa trade. The industry is dominated by a plantation system, where farmers live and work like indentured servants.

Conditions are even worse for children. UNICEF reports that thousands of children work as slave laborers on cocoa plantations, often trafficked across borders. This is particularly true in the cocoa belt of West Africa’s Ivory Coast, where children work back-breaking hours in dangerous conditions to feed the voracious chocolate appetites of the West.

Credit: Equal Exchange

Want an alternative? Think fair trade.

Fairly traded chocolate is an ethical alternative to the exploitative plantation system. Farmers working in fair-trade cocoa cooperatives earn a fair price for the products they produce. No slaves, no children. The fair-trade system keeps small-scale farmers an active part of the world economy, and empowers consumers to make purchases that support their values.

Fair-trade organic chocolate producers also use sustainable farming methods, without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. This prevents harmful chemicals from entering the ecosystem and water supplies. Our friends at Equal Exchange tell us that many organic fair-trade cocoa farmers have diverse farms, meaning they plant a variety of cacao trees, tall shade trees, and fruit and vegetable plants. This allows for more diversity of wildlife as well as stronger protection against extreme weather.

Want to give chocolate to the kiddos at your door this Halloween? Go with fair trade! Visit our friends at Equal Exchange to learn more.


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Ken Davis

Ken Davis is the Co-op's senior copywriter. Email him at