The Bittersweet Story of Cacao

There are few plants that have had a more compelling influence on humanity.

Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.

~ Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice

The three ethics in permaculture are care-based: care for the Earth, care for people and care for the future/fair share. These ethics can help us with our daily decision-making, reduce our ecological footprint, and support social justice. This article is one of a series that explores the historical and modern relationship between plants and people.

I discovered this last decade that I love to learn about the lives of plants. Not just the botany, culinary uses, or medicinal benefits; I become obsessed with a plant’s cultural history and its current influence. I scour books and websites that have identified the “most important plants” in human history and compare the lists, looking for how the plants were rated.

Plants have some of the most fascinating biographies and they have enchanted humans for thousands of years.

Plants are the basis of our sustenance so there are many that I would place on my own list. But there are few plants that have a more compelling influence than cacao. For over 5000 years, humans have pursued the unusual-looking fruit, creating a global love and demand for its final end product – chocolate.

Over the years I have researched the history, production, and of course, culinary and medicinal uses of cacao and its manufactured product, chocolate. Let’s start with some remarkable statistics:

  • Each year, Americans consume almost 3 billion pounds of chocolate.
  • Switzerland earns the title of the top chocolate consumer at almost 20 pounds annually per person.
  • One pound of chocolate requires 400 cacao beans.
  • The global chocolate industry grosses over $100 billion dollars each year.
  • Most cacao farmers earn less than $1 per day while manufacturers and retailers retain 80% of profits.
  • The rising global demand for chocolate has led to an expansion of cacao farms resulting in the deforestation of as much as 80% of tropical forests along the African equator belt.
  • Despite a 20-year-old international agreement among the biggest chocolate manufacturers to eliminate child and slave labor on cacao farms, the exploitation of child labor has increased in some countries by as much as 49%.

Origin of Cacao

A member of the Malvaceae family, which includes hollyhocks, hibiscus, okra and mallows, cacao’s binomial name is Theobroma cacao, theo meaning ‘god’ and broma meaning ‘food’. The word cacao is believed to be the Spanish pronunciation of the ancient indigenous word ‘kakaw’. The word cocoa which is used interchangeably with cacao by English speakers is thought to have been created by a spelling error. 

Recent archeological evidence indicates that wild cacao seeds were foraged over 5000 years ago. Cultivation likely began 3000 years ago by indigenous people of Central America: the Olmecs and later, the Mayans and Aztecs. It then spread via human domestication to what is now known as southeastern Mexico. Like other cultivated tropical plants (i.e., vanilla and coffee) cacao thrives best when grown in a geographical band extending 20 degrees above and below the equator. 

Botanical Description

Cacao plants are small (15-25 feet), broad-leaf evergreen trees that grow in the under-story of tropical rain forests. They have large, oblong leathery leaves. Their flowers are borne on short stalks directly from the trunk – a unique arrangement that eventually produces foot-long pods (fruits). These football-looking fruits are green when immature and ripen through a rainbow of changing colors: white, yellow, orange, and reddish-purple. The cacao pod holds twenty to forty reddish-brown cacao beans (i.e., seeds of the fruit) which are encased in a white mucilaginous pulp.

Harvested cacao pods
Image by myfriendkarla from Pixabay
Harvested cacao pods
Image by myfriendkarla from Pixabay

Complicated Plant Sex

The trees begin to bear fruit at five years and despite producing thousands of flowers, each tree produces only twenty to thirty pods per year. Researchers have calculated that only 10% of the cacao flowers are pollinated. Pollination is complicated by the compact and intricate design of the small flowers’ reproductive parts which includes hoods on the male anthers and a cage-like structure that surrounds the female ovules.

Cacao flowers - Wikimedia commons
Cacao flowers
Wikimedia commons

The cacao flower is dependent on very small insects (2-3mm) to access their reproductive systems. As if that weren’t challenging enough, each tree requires pollen from a different tree, so the insects must be able to travel to a nearby tree. Botanists have yet to identify specific pollinators for cacao though it is likely that tiny flies and gall midges are two species who actually do the work of pollination. Bees and gnats have been observed “stealing” pollen but are not believed to actually follow through with pollination activities.

A 2010 study suggests that manual pollination by humans could result in a doubling of the cacao pod yield. But most research is focused on identifying the natural pollinators and then reproducing their natural reproductive habitat which consists of leaf litter, bromeliads, decaying cacao pods, and rotting banana plants. Observational studies seem to confirm this as small farms that are cleaned of other plants and their debris have some of the lowest cacao pod yields.

Cultivated Varieties of Cacao

There are three primary cultivars used by the chocolate industry: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. Each cultivar offers differing levels of bitterness, aroma, and disease resistance. The Criollo is considered the finest bean for taste and smell but is used in only 10% of chocolate products because it’s expensive. The Forastero is used in 80% of chocolate products and is the hardiest of the three cultivars.

Ripened cacao pod
Ripened cacao pod
Image from Unsplash

Historical Cultivation & Commerce

Cultivation of the cacao tree began with the pre-Mayan Olmec culture, and the ancient Mayans expanded production as the cacao bean garnered more importance in their culture. The ancient Mayans are believed to have created the first chocolate drink, called xocolatl or chocolatl, using cacao beans and hot water.

Mayan art depicting cacao tree. 
Image courtesy of
Mayan art depicting cacao tree.
Image courtesy of

This bitter drink was used for sacred ceremonies and a similar ritual use was continued by the Aztecs. Reflecting the value of plants in their lives, the Aztecs added ground maize, hot peppers, and eventually vanilla to these chocolate drinks. This sacred drink was reserved for the elite members of their culture and served at royal feasts in a dramatic presentation that involved holding the drink high to be poured into ceremonial gourds used for drinking.

cacao beans 
Photo by Tetiana Bykovets on Unsplash
Cacao beans
Photo by Tetiana Bykovets on Unsplash

Cacao beans were so important to the indigenous cultures that they were used in trade as currency, to pay taxes, given as a reward to warriors, and stories about the gods associated with cacao were developed. A thriving industry formed around a cacao bean counterfeit currency; small pieces of clay and stone were painted and passed as cacao beans.

The Aztecs also placed a high value on the cacao bean and maintained storehouses filled with them. Writings from the Spanish Conquistadors recorded that the leader of the Aztecs, Moctezuma, drank fifty cups a day of the sacred drink because it increased endurance and helped men with their relationships with women!

Aztec art depicting the importance of cacao beans.
Aztec art depicting the importance of cacao beans. Image: Wikimedia

Christopher Columbus claims the title of the first European to have tasted the cacao bean drink. Hernán Cortés and his Spanish Conquistadors drank the bitter chocolate drink but were not impressed. After killing Moctezuma the Conquistadors pillaged the beautiful palace and surrounding village, taking all that seemed of value. Whether that included cacao beans, vanilla, and corn historians are not clear who first brought these New World gifts to the Old World.

Colonial Influence & Enslavement

As parts of Mexico were colonized by the Spanish (called New Spain) in the late 1500s, they began to export silver, cacao, vanilla, and sugar to Europe. The European women of colonial New Spain transformed the traditional indigenous chocolate drink to a version of what we now recognize as hot cocoa: a mix of cacao, sugar, vanilla, and a variety of spices. This may have been an economic strategy: initially, cacao’s bitter taste had not appealed to Europeans but they quickly coveted the sweetened version of ‘chocolatl’, and chocolate shops sprung up in European cities. Demand increased and cultivation of both cacao and sugar surged in the young colonies. Tragically, the need for laborers resulted in the enslavement of both Indigenous people and imported Africans.

The legacy of slave labor used in cacao production began with the spread of cacao farms in the Caribbean and South America in the last half of the 1600s. As chocolate grew in popularity in Europe, the demand for cacao increased and in the early 1800s, small plantations were started in eastern Africa. By the early 1900s, cacao agriculture had spread west across the African countries located along the equatorial tropical belt. In the mid-1900s, Asian countries began cacao production recognizing the classic economic concept of supply and demand. The continued demand for cacao has resulted in global small farms that produced almost 5 million tons of cocoa beans in 2018. Today, 70% of the world’s cacao beans are grown in Africa, primarily from Cote d’ Ivorie (AKA the Ivory Coast) and Ghana.

Cacao Production  

Cacao production, harvest, and processing are labor-intensive and are done without mechanization. Farmers must check their cacao trees daily for ripe pods because pods don’t ripen at the same time. Knowing when a pod is ripe can be difficult; the varying colors of pods do not indicate ripeness. Workers learn to assess by shape and touch.

Harvesting a pod with machete.
 Image from Pixabay.
Harvesting a pod with a machete.
Image from Pixabay.

Using a machete or knife, pods are carefully hand-picked from the trunks of the trees. The unique flowering structures of the tree must be preserved for future growth and they grow alongside the ripe pods, so harvesting the pods must be done by experienced workers.

Cacao beans encased in pulp. 
Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash
Cacao beans encased in pulp.
Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

Once pods are removed from the tree, they are opened by either a knife or a wooden club and the pulp-covered cacao seeds are removed. Workers inspect the cacao seeds for evidence of witch’s broom, a fungal disease that can cause deformity of pods and seeds and affect the flavor quality. Similar to vanilla beans, the cacao beans must be fermented by placing them in a heated box and allowing microorganisms to introduce chemical actions that are responsible for creating the chocolate taste and color. To prepare the beans for the final process of roasting, 50% of their moisture must be removed by drying in the sun. Roasting is a carefully managed process that affects the final flavor of chocolate and differs depending on the intended market and buyer. These four processes are usually conducted on the farm and then the beans are shipped to manufacturers who will further refine the cacao for its use in the chocolate industry.

Modern Slavery 

Child labor on cacao plantation in West Africa. 
Image courtesy of
Child labor on a cacao plantation in West Africa.
Image courtesy of

Sadly, slave and child labor and trafficking are still a reality, especially on West African farms. Most cacao is grown on small family farms and despite the $100 billion-dollar chocolate industry that relies on these farms, most of the farmers live in poverty. According to the 2015 US Dept of Labor report, Child Labor in the Production of Cacao, over 1.5 million children work on the cacao farms in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire which are responsible for most of the world’s annual cacao production.

Living in abject poverty, children from surrounding countries are trafficked and sold into indentured servitude or outright slavery. In addition to being exposed to toxic agrochemicals, smoke and fire from burning fields, use of sharp tools, and carrying heavy loads, reports have also documented that physical abuse is regularly doled out and living conditions are abysmal.

In its 2006 report, Social Justice in an Open World, the United Nations finally acknowledged the increasing numbers of humans who are not offered the same rights of freedom, opportunity, and dignity: “Slaves, exploited workers, and oppressed women are above all victimized human beings whose location matters less than their circumstances.”

How to Buy Ethically Sourced Chocolate

The best way to preserve the future sustainability of chocolate and cacao is to support chocolate that has been ethically sourced. Using our consumer power, we can choose to purchase chocolate from companies that purchase their cacao from ethical sources. There are also environmental concerns: in an effort to increase production, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are often used. This long-lasting toxic residue is showing up as heavy metals in cacao beans.

New smaller boutique companies offer chocolate that has been sourced directly from fairly paid farmers who use organic growing methods and do not employ children or slaves. Many of them develop partnerships with farmers in a region who sell their crops exclusively to their partners. The organization,, offers a long list of small business chocolate manufacturers who create some of the best-tasting chocolate using ethically sourced cacao. You can learn more about the efforts to eliminate child labor on the same website (as well as the resources listed below).

Lastly, remind the chocolate cartel (global corporations) that they signed an agreement to eliminate the use of slaves and trafficked children on the plantations they buy from over 20 years ago and so far, there is little evidence of their commitment. Send the overly-paid CEOS an email letting them know why you aren’t buying their products.

Additional Information

Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry (Latest article)

Bittersweet: The Dark Side of the Chocolate Industry (5-minute video overview)

Stop Eating Chocolate (17-minute video on the chocolate cartel business model)

Money and Power: Unnamed Ingredients (podcast)