Contrary to popular belief, cocoa is usually grown using toxic agricultural pesticides.
March 25, 2021
Source: AllAfrica News (West Africa Business)
“Cocoa Production, Employment, Shot Up By Mass Spraying – Jun 12 2003
Available data convincingly proves that Ghana’s Cocoa Diseases and Pests Control project (CODAPEC), commonly known as the Mass Spraying Exercise, has tremendously improved the yield of cocoa, which remains one of the most important foreign exchange earners.”1
It is clear that nobody likes to imagine their chocolate being treated with toxic chemicals at various points along the journey from the tree to the table. Afterall, there’s nothing romantic or delicious about pesticides.
Unfortunately, the fact is that pesticides are widely used in the cocoa industry. Perhaps even more unfortunately, many chocolate makers seem to be in denial about this fact, to the extent that some well-respected people within the industry have publicly made unsupported claims, implying that pesticides are rarely or never used on cocoa. For example, one well-known artisanal chocolate maker was quoted as saying that his chocolate is “chemical free” because “pesticides don’t really work with cacao beans”. 2
The aim of this article is to show that pesticides do work with cacao beans.
harming cocoa growers.3 , 4
And pesticide residues routinely
turn up in chocolate products sold in the USA5
For as long as the leaders in the chocolate industry refuse to acknowledge that a pesticide problem exists, we have no hope of finding (or even looking for) a realistic solution to that problem.
It is the consumers of chocolate who hold the power. Consumers can make the industry leaders pay attention, and make them start looking for a solution.
. “a psychological defense mechanism in which a person faced with a fact that is uncomfortable or painful to accept rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence. The subject may deny the reality of the unpleasant fact altogether (simple denial), admit the fact but deny its seriousness (minimization) or admit both the fact and seriousness but deny responsibility (transference).
In this article, I will address some of the most common myths about chemical usage and related practices in the cocoa industry. The myths I come across most frequently are:
||“The more expensive a chocolate is, the less likely it is to contain pesticide residues” (find out why this is not true)
||“The toxic residues detected in chocolates such as Lindt are so insignificant that I don’t need to worry” (find out why this is not true)
||“Most cocoa is grown without pesticides because cocoa growers are too poor to buy agricultural chemicals” (find out why this is not true)
||“Cacao trees can’t be sprayed with pesticides, because pesticides would kill the midges that pollinate the flowers” (find out why this is not true)
||“Dangerous chemicals like DDT and lindane might have been used on cocoa 20 years ago – but those chemicals are banned now, so there’s nothing to worry about” (find out why this is not true)
||“The cocoa industry is environmentally friendly, because cocoa trees will only grow in bio-diverse eco-systems, with shade provided by other rainforest trees” (find out why this is not true)
||“Fumigation with methyl bromide is the most effective quarantine treatment we have to kill insect pests in cocoa” (find out why this is not true)
||“The more expensive a chocolate is, the less likely it is to contain pesticide residues”
In fact, the exact opposite is more likely to be true. This is because, in chocolate, the amount of pesticide residue typically increases in proportion with the cocoa content – and expensive chocolate tends to contain more cocoa solids (including cocoa butter) than cheap chocolate.
For example, the UK-based Working Party on Pesticides Residues (WPPR) has reported that “the frequency of lindane residues in continental-style (i.e.high cocoa butter content) chocolate was high. … The reason for this was likely to be the chocolates’ high cocoa butter content and that cocoa is grown in countries where lindane is regularly used”.6
The WPPR tested seven samples of fine chocolate made by the highly respected Swiss manufacturer, Lindt and Sprüngli. Every
Lindt sample was found to contain traces of the extremely toxic pesticide known as lindane (gamma-HCH).6
The same study tested five samples of chocolate manufactured by the British supermarket chain, Tesco. Only 40% of the Tesco samples contained detectable traces of lindane.
Another reason that expensive chocolate is more likely to contain chemical residues than cheap chocolate is that “fine” or “expensive” chocolate makers like to use the rare and delicate cocoa variety called Criollo.
Criollo cocoa trees are rare because they are highly vulnerable to fungal diseases and insect attack. For this reason, Criollo trees are much harder to grow without using synthetic fungicides and insecticides. Although chocolate manufacturers usually pay a large premium for Criollo cocoa beans, the Criollo trees can be several times less productive than hardier Forastero trees, meaning that, even with a high price per kilogram, farmers have to maximise their production in order to survive financially. Of course, the cheapest and easiest way to maximise production is to use agricultural chemicals.
Remember, most chocolate manufacturers want you to believe that their chocolate is free of pesticide residues. But simply saying that cocoa has been grown without chemicals doesn’t make it true. Demand concrete evidence from artisanal chocolate makers. If they can’t – or won’t – provide evidence, then you are entitled to doubt their claims.
||“The toxic residues detected in chocolates such as Lindt are so insgnificant that I don’t need to worry”
The refutation of this myth depends on at least two factors – one being how much chocolate you might eat in a day; the other being whether or not you care about the people who grow the cocoa you eat.
When the WPPR discovered traces of lindane (gamma-HCH) in samples of Lindt chocolate, the highest concentration they found was 0.06mg/kg.6
To put this in perspective, 0.06mg of lindane is considered to be the maximum acceptable daily intake (ADI) for a person weighing 60kg.8
In other words, if a person weighing 60kg consumed more than 1kg of this Lindt chocolate within 24 hours, they would exceed their acceptable daily intake of lindane. If they ate that amount regularly, they could begin to suffer the effects of lindane toxicity. Acute symptoms of lindane toxicity include headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, weakness, convulsions, breathing difficulties, and circulatory collapse. In the long term, exposure to lindane has been linked to breast cancer, infertility, and aplastic anaemia.
As a consumer of chocolate, you may or may not be concerned about your personal risk of suffering from exposure to lindane (and other pesticides). But perhaps you could spare a thought for the people whose job it is to apply those pesticides to the cocoa you eat.
In adult humans, the lethal dose of lindane is estimated to be between 0.7 and 1.4 grams, or approximately one-fifth of a teaspoon
The standard method of pesticide application on cocoa is by knapsack mist-blowers.10
Usually, due to a combination of heat, a lack of resources, and ignorance, the people applying pesticides to cocoa do not wear adequate protective clothing, and are therefore exposed to significant amounts of spray drift.
Because cocoa trees are taller than people, the sprayers are frequently drenched with pesticides during application.11
Often, cocoa growers do not understand the dangers associated with the agricultural chemicals they handle. Many cocoa growers are illiterate, and have no hope of being able to read instructions or warnings printed on chemical containers.
Studies have found that the majority of cocoa growers experience symptoms of pesticide poisoning, including headaches, tiredness, nausea, vomiting, burns, and itching.3
Severely limited resources mean that many cocoa growers store highly toxic chemicals in their bedrooms (often the only room in the house). They also frequently re-use pesticide drums as food containers.
The Pesticide Action Network reports that “In Ghana, where lindane is routinely used in cocoa production farmers state it “is common knowledge” that those spraying this pesticide become infertile”.12
||“Most cocoa is grown without pesticides because cocoa growers are too poor to buy agricultural chemicals”
I have several points to make in my rebuttal of this myth:
FACT: Pesticides are cheap.
However, if you believe that the average cocoa grower cannot afford enough agrochemicals to protect his most valuable source of income (his cocoa), then I urge you to read point IV, below.
FACT: Pesticides are highly cost effective.
A pesticide’s job is to boost crop yields and, thereby, farmers’ incomes.
The multi-billion dollar pesticide industry would cease to exist if pesticides did not provide a direct financial benefit to farmers.
Hence, in purely financial terms, pesticides represent a smart investment for cocoa growers.
FACT: Governments in cocoa-growing countries often subsidise pesticides
Often, cocoa growers don’t even have to buy their own chemicals. For example:
“In recent years, COCOBOD, the Ghanaian cocoa marketing authority, has sent out pesticide spraying teams to control pests and disease with the farmer only obligated to provide the fuel for the motorized mist sprayers used by the government team.” 20
If it is true that cocoa growers are too poor to buy agrochemicals – then obviously these growers are not being paid a fair price for their cocoa.
There is a blatant contradiction espoused by some chocolate makers:
On the one hand, these chocolate makers insist that they pay cocoa growers a “fair price” for cocoa beans.
But on the other hand, these same chocolate makers insist that their chocolate is “chemical free”, because cocoa growers are so poor that they cannot afford pesticides.
A case in point:
On 8 February 2006, I received an email from Frankie Whitman, Scharffen Berger’s director of marketing, in response to an enquiry I had made about Scharffen Berger’s position on sustainability and fair trade. Frankie’s email said, in part (with my italics added):
“Thanks for your interest in Scharffen Berger […] our primary goal is to purchase the best beans available […] we usually pay higher than fair trade pricing […] we are paying at least Fair Trade pricing […] our growers have little extra cash for chemical pesticides. They are de facto organic.”
[“de facto” means “in fact”, which in turn means that Scharffen Berger considers their cocoa to be “in fact, organic”]
So which is it? Are the growers usually paid a fair price? Or are they always paid at least a Fair Trade price? (If this was the case, they could easily afford pesticides). Or, are the growers really too poor to buy pesticides? (In which case they obviously aren’t paid a fair price for their beans). Either way, it seems that we’re not being told the full story.
||“Cacao trees can’t be sprayed with pesticides, because pesticides would kill the insects that pollinate the flowers”
If Myth 4 were true, then farmers would only have to spray against insect pests once, and the problem would be solved for ever. So why do farmers all over the world spray their crops with insecticides every year? It’s because insecticides never manage to kill every insect. Insects typically have very short breeding cycles, meaning that they re-accumulate quickly. The same laws of nature apply to both beneficial insects, and pest insects.
Hence, while it is true that the insects responsible for pollinating cocoa flowers are vulnerable to insecticides, this doesn’t mean that pesticides are not used on cocoa.
For starters, the term pesticide covers a wide range of toxic chemicals – not all of which are designed to kill insects. For example, fungicides and herbicides are also pesticides.
Copper sulfate is a toxic fungicide commonly applied to cocoa for the treatment of black pod (Phytophthora). Copper sulfate can produce acute and chronic toxicity in humans, and it is extremely toxic to fish, but it is not particularly harmful for pollinating insects such as midges and ants.
On the other hand, capsids (also known as mirids) are one of the worst insect pests of cocoa. The standard capsid control program in West Africa involves spraying insecticides such as lindane and propoxur at monthly intervals from August to December. This time period coincides with the main pod harvest. Hence, these insecticides are applied at a time when the trees are mostly bearing fruit rather than flowers, meaning that pollinating insects are protected by their absence.
Nevertheless, it has been stated that cocoa trees in Africa and South America are “chronically under-pollinated” – a situation that is “particularly influenced by the [low] number of pollinating insects”.13
Indeed, it is estimated that less than 10% of cocoa flowers on commercially grown trees are successfully pollinated. Whether or not this “chronic under-pollination” is indirectly caused by insecticide usage is a moot point.
||“Dangerous chemicals like DDT and lindane might have been used on cocoa 20 years ago – but those chemicals are banned now, so there’s nothing to worry about”
There are a number of very important points to consider in relation to this myth:
Although something may be illegal in your country, it isn’t necessarily illegal in every country.
For instance, in the USA, DDT was banned in 1972. In Australia, DDT wasn’t banned until 1987, when residues were detected in beef exported to the USA.
Even today, because DDT is so cheap and effective, it is still used legally for the control of mosquitos in some cocoa growing countries where malaria is endemic.
Similarly, while lindane is banned for agricultural use in the USA, the UK, and Europe, it is still legal for use on cocoa in Ghana and Nigeria – two of the world’s four largest cocoa producers.14
Even making something illegal doesn’t automatically stop it from happening – just think of the thousands of murders that are committed in the USA every year, despite murder being against the law.
Similarly, although it is illegal throughout the world to use DDT on food crops, there is ample evidence to suggest that farmers frequently divert DDT (meant for malaria control) to their fields, for use on crops including cocoa.15 , 16
One of the characteristics that makes chemicals like lindane and DDT both extremely effective, and very dangerous, is their ability to remain chemically active for a long period of time. This is known as “persistence”. Lindane and DDT are both POPs, or Persistent Organic Pollutants – meaning that they are highly toxic, persistent and bioacccumulative.
The USFDA acknowledges that it is common to find traces of lindane and DDT in chocolate. Indeed, it permits
these residues, because they are considered “unavoidable”.5
Chemical dependency is a serious problem in agriculture. Banned pesticides are inevitably replaced by newer chemical alternatives, because the manufacture and sale of agricultural chemicals is a multi-billion dollar industry. While new pesticides are certainly less persistent than old organochlorines, they are still highly toxic (afterall, they are formulated specifically to kill living things). In other words, while DDT and lindane might be amongst the worst chemicals used on cocoa, it is important to remember that all synthetic pesticides pose risks to human and environmental health.
||“The cocoa industry is environmentally friendly, because cocoa trees will only grow in bio-diverse eco-systems, with shade provided by other rainforest trees”
Most people who know anything at all about the cocoa tree – Theobroma cacao – know that it is native to the rainforests of central and south America. Specifically, the cocoa tree is at home in the heavily shaded understorey of the rainforest, where the tiny midges that pollinate cocoa flowers thrive.
Because these conditions are the natural home of the cocoa tree, many people mistakenly believe that cocoa trees can’t survive, let alone thrive, in other conditions – particularly the sun-drenched rows typical of intensive horticulture.
This simply isn’t true, as the tropical biologist Allen Young discovered. Indeed, when the cocoa tree was “brought out of the forest and into the sun it grew to heights rarely seen in the dark undergrowth of the South American rain forest. And its fruits, the pods that produce cacao beans, swelled and ripened to magnificent melon-sized orbs”.17
A cocoa plantation at the CIRAD research centre in Vanuatu.
These healthy and productive cacao trees grow in neat rows,
with no other species interplanted for shade.
While it is true that cocoa’s pollinating insects prefer the humid, dim environment of the rainforest floor, enough insects survive in sunny conditions to make intensive plantations far more profitable than dotting cocoa trees sparsely throughout a rainforest setting. Moreover, cocoa trees can profitably be pollinated by hand, and, in any case, within a few years (usually by the time trees are mature enough to bear fruit), the leafy crown of a cocoa plantation provides ample shade for the habitation of pollinating insects.
As the result of research undertaken in 1999, Boa et al concluded that the idea of planting cocoa “in the shade of natural trees” in Ecuador is an unfounded “stereotype”. The researchers saw no evidence of cocoa being grown under natural shade trees. The only trees that they saw being deliberately planted as shade trees for cocoa were “usually removed after six to seven years, once the cacao was established”.18
Want more evidence? Read my review
of the 2005 University of Chocolate, where I document the total absence of rainforest on a Rainforest Alliance certified
cocoa plantation in Ecuador.
||“Fumigation with methyl bromide is the most effective quarantine treatment we have to kill insect pests in cocoa”
You may not be aware that raw cocoa beans entering countries like Australia and the USA are routinely fumigated with methyl bromide during quarantine, in order to kill insect pests.
Methyl bromide is a highly toxic gas. Acute exposure causes burns, severe kidney damage, and devastating effects on the central nervous system. The inhalation of small quantities of methyl bromide can cause mental confusion, double vision, tremors, lack of co-ordination and slurred speech.
Methyl bromide is also a Class I ozone-depleting substance, meaning that most countries have banned methyl bromide except for use in quarantine. (The earth’s ozone layer protects us from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation – methyl bromide is contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer).
Methyl bromide is devastatingly effective at killing insects, rodents, fungi, and weeds – but there are alternatives. One alternative is cold treatment, whereby cocoa beans are held in cold storage at a temperature of -18ºC for a period of seven days. Cold treatment is just as effective as methyl bromide (afterall, dead is dead), but cold treatment typically costs more, takes longer, and is bound up in more red tape than the use of methyl bromide.
Methyl bromide is not allowed under organic certification programs, whereas cold treatment is considered acceptable.
For chemical-free chocolate to become a reality, rather than a comforting fantasy, changes must take place in the cocoa growing countries. But first and foremost, we need greater demand for organically grown chocolate. When the demand is there, the supply will follow.
The URLs provided below were correct and operational on the date of publication (25/03/06)
||AllAfrica News: West Africa Business,
Cocoa Production, Employment Shot Up By Mass Spraying, 12 Jun 2003.
||John Scharffenberger, as quoted in Secrets Of The Bean. Reported by Miriam Morgan in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, 3 Jun 2001.
Article reproduced at: http://www.scharffenberger.com/NEart2.asp
“Ghana has the best beans right now,” Scharffenberger says. “Plus, they treat the growers right. We’re working to encourage the small growers.” While the company’s chocolate is not organic, Scharffenberger points out that the beans are chemical-free. “Pesticides don’t really work with cacao beans, anyway,” he claims.
||Tijani, A.A., Pesticide Use Practices and Safety Issues: The Case of Cocoa Farmers in Nigeria
Journal of Human Ecology 19(3) 183-190, 2006, KRE Publishers, Delhi India
||Gerken, Suglo, and Braun, Pesticides Use and Policies in Ghana, Pesticide Policy Project Publication Series No. 10, May 2001, Hannover.
“About two thirds of the farmers interviewed reported health problems after pesticide application. […] cases of serious health problems have been reported, mainly by farmers, and in a few cases, by consumers.”
||Shively, C.A., U.S. Requirements for Importing Cocoa Beans and Products, undated, Hershey Foods Corporation.
“57% of the 68 cocoa and chocolate samples contained no pesticide residues” – in other words, 43% of the samples did contain pesticide residues
||Working Party on Pesticides Residues (WPPR) Annual Report 1998: http://www.pesticides.gov.uk/uploadedfiles/Web_Assets/PRC/WPPR_1998_chocolate.pdf
(note: the WPPR was replaced by the Pesticide Residues Committee in 2000)
||Wikipedia – “Denial” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denial
||The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, ACCEPTABLE DAILY INTAKES, ACUTE REFERENCE DOSES, RECOMMENDED MRLs, STMR LEVELS AND GLs RECORDED BY THE 1997 MEETING
||Pesticide Action Network UK
||Padi, B., MIRIDS ON COCOA IN GHANA, undated, Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana.
||Professor Anthony Youdeowei, quoted in: Farmer Field Schools science in action
||Pesticide Action Network UK, Trading in the Environment? 1998
||Ecoport, Theobroma cacao L., undated
||Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade
||News in Ghana, Cocoa farmers complained about spraying gangs, 13 Feb 2021
“Cocoa farmers at Mukyia, Otabil and Adudjan in the Birim North District have expressed concern about the lackadaisical manner in which cocoa spraying gangs were going about their work in the area. They complained that instead of the gangs spraying cocoa farms twice in a year, they only undertook the exercise once, a situation which they said had adverse effects on cocoa yields.
At a news conference held at Mukyia on Saturday, Mr Kwadwo Tieku a spokesman for the farmers said even when they preferred to buy their own DDT and insecticide to have their farms sprayed, the gangs refused to do the exercise unless they were prepared to pay bribes of not less than 20,000 cedis each. He alleged that on most occasions, spraying on the farms was done in such hurried manner that some of the DDT and insecticides were left over for the spraying gangs to share among themselves.
Mr Tieku commended the government on the introduction of the mass cocoa spraying exercise and appealed to the District Assembly to monitor the activities of the spraying gangs in order not to undermine the exercise.”
||Purvis, A., The tribe that survives on chocolate, The Observer UK, 9 Nov 2020
“‘Some of the cocoa producers’ companies were not so good before,’ Richard Ampomah confirms. ‘When Kuapa came, everything was all right. They give us DDT pesticides to spray on our crops and orange T-shirts to show we are members of Kuapa.'”
||Quick, S., Puzzles remain in cacao’s ecology 14 Sep 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
||Boa, E., Bentley, J., and Stonehouse, J., Cacao and neighbour trees in Ecuador, 2000, CABI Bioscience UK
||Darko, J.N., and Jinor, A.D.,
Promotion and Standardization challenges for Sustainable Organic Cocoa Production, 2004
||Gockowski, J., Child Labour Investigations and Interventions in the Cocoa Sector, Sustainable Tree Crops Program Impact Brief, issue 6, March 2006.
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