Organic chocolate products begin with growing and harvesting cocoa according to organic methods.
The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations define and govern “organic” production. This pertains to foods grown anywhere that are imported into the United States. These regulations seek to promote an integrated approach to growing and harvesting, which conserves natural ecosystems while at the same time prohibiting the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic production methods have the added benefit of fostering sustainable conditions by preserving natural resources (for example, a tropical rainforest).
In the United States, “100% Organic” means all the ingredients are produced in accordance with organic methods. For a product to be legally labeled “Organic”, at least 95% of its ingredients must be organic. A product can be “Made With Organic Ingredients” if at least 70% of its content is organic. “Certified Organic” means a product must be grown and manufactured in accordance with specified standards determined by the country where the product is sold. Thus, “Certified Organic” means different things in different countries and is not necessarily a guarantee that the product is pesticide free.
The EPA regulates food products sold in the United States that have been exposed to pesticides. For chocolate (non-organic) made from imported cocoa, the EPA allows up to certain levels of pesticide residue in the cocoa powder. Among these chemicals are Methyl Bromide, Pyrethrins, Hydrogen Cyanide, Naled, and Glyphosate. The EPA bans Lindane as a treatment on food cops, however trace amounts have been found in some European chocolate products. The US Food and Drug Administration works to see that chemical contaminants within imported food products do not exceed the levels set by the EPA. These chemicals are hazardous to crop pests, but are deemed acceptable for human consumption at some level.
So, why are chemical fertilizers and pesticides used anyway? The answer lies in how each producer evaluates the balance between the cost of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the yield of product obtained. Natural pests compromise and lower harvest yield, thereby decreasing profits. Chemical fertilizers have the initial benefit of maximizing yield per acre.
Many cocoa producers rely heavily upon chemical pesticides and fertilizers to boost and maintain crop production. Cocoa pods are one of the world’s most heavily sprayed food crops. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is controversial because of its adverse affects on human cultivators and harvesters, on surrounding vegetation and ecosystems, on other non-production related species, and on soil and local water.
There are also longer-term consequences to consider. High yield plantations replace natural rainforest with income producing crops. Long-term focus on production has had the unintended consequence of tending toward limiting biodiversity, making producing species less resistant to pests and disease. As trees become less resistant over time due to limited genetic diversity, producers tend to become more reliant on chemical pesticides to protect crop yield.
As a consumer of chocolate products, your purchases equate to your vote as to how cocoa is cultivated and harvested. There is no right or wrong, but there is a choice. Buying organic chocolate does not guarantee that the upstream producer will support sustainable production methods. Buying organic does, however, send a clear message to the retailer that you choose to spend your money on organic products. Ultimately, consumer demand drives the worldwide market and shapes the choices producers make.