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It just wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without a BIG box of chocolates. Whether you’re celebrating with a special someone, a group of fun single friends, or solo, chocolate is certainly in order. But before you chow down, there are a few things you should know…

If you love a vegan, animal lover, environmentalist, or socially conscious individual, picking the wrong chocolate is a sure way to start a fight. Now, I’m not talking about picking the wrong flavor or urging you to consider the calorie count of that heart shaped box — these issues are a little bigger than that. In fact, chocolate can be a pretty controversial token of affection in the global scheme of things.

The relationship between chocolate and the environment is pretty complicated, so to ensure your relationship doesn’t take a similarly complicated turn, check out this list to learn all you need to know about getting the perfect sweet for your sweety.

1. Pesticides

According to the Pesticide Action Network, cocoa is “second only to cotton in its high use of pesticides.” The chemicals sprayed on cocoa beans to ward off insects have a way of showing up in the chocolate we consume. The bigger your sweet tooth, the bigger your exposure to pesticides. Luckily, cocoa can be grown organically using natural methods of pest control.

2. Deforestation

Cocoa can be harvested under the shade of tropical canopy plants. However, many farmers cut down trees surrounding their cocoa crops. With high demands for cocoa crops, farmers are planting more hybrid plants that require full-sun exposure as well as pesticides to produce high yields. No to mention, some big chocolate companies, like Mars and Ferrero use palm oil in their chocolate. When cocoa and palm trees are cut down, all of the carbon dioxide that was stored in the tree is released into the atmosphere. It is estimated that in 2009, 30 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions resulted from deforestation associated with palm oil.

3. Dangers of Cocoa Monoculture

Chocolate production relies on the fertilization of cocoa plants. Most cocoa plants are fertilized by midges, a gnat like insect that  thrive in a dark humid environment more akin to a tropical rainforest setting. Man-made cocoa plantations are sunny and dry, creating a fertilization problem. If cocoa flowers aren’t fertilized within 24 hours, they will die. This could also cause worldwide chocolate shortages (pretty devastating in my mind). But more importantly, this presents a real threat to the agricultural well-being of people who rely on cocoa production for their living. Intensive farming on cocoa plantations only produce high-yields for short periods of time, effectively depleting soil which encourages farmers to expand plantations further into the forest, extending the cycle.

4. Habitat Loss

The practice of cutting down trees to make room for cocoa crops destroys delicate tropical eco-systems causing animal species to become threatened or even extinct. Between 50 and 60 percent of biodiversity loss in cocoa rich countries like Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Honduras has been linked to exports. A study done by the University of Sydney showed that spider monkey habitats were threatened with growing demand for cocoa.

5. Human and Animal Cruelty

According to PETA, dairy cows raised in an industrial farm only live about one-quarter of their expected natural lifespan. Raised in inhuman conditions, force fed hormones, and continuously bred to extend milk production, the life of a factory farm dairy cow is brutal, to say the least. Milk chocolate is implicated in the cruelty of this industry.

But, beware, it takes more than just a vegan label to ensure your chocolate is cruelty free. Across the Ivory Coast and Ghana, child labor, human trafficking, and slavery have been documented on cocoa farms.

Chocolate with a Conscience

There are many ethical chocolate options out there, you just need to know the right place to look! When choosing chocolates, keep the following in mind:

  • Go organic: chocolate made without planet-harming chemicals tastes better anyway.
  • Look for shade-grown: shade-grown cocoa is grown under cover of indigenous trees, helping to prevent deforestation.
  • Choose vegan so you can ensure no animals were harmed in the name of your sweet tooth. Here is a list of our picks for best vegan dark chocolate.
  • Fair-Trade & Fair for Life Chocolate protects the rights of cocoa farmers and works to ensure sustainable farming practices that promote biodiversity are utilized.
  • Buy chocolates that are Rainforest Alliance Certified to help Support their efforts to conserve biodiversity, protect animals, and promote sustainable communities.

You can also take action against harmful chocolate companies.

  • Stop the use of unsustainable palm-oil in chocolate by signing anti-palm oil petitions. 
  • Sign this petition urging major chocolate companies to stop child labor and human trafficking in cocoa production.

Show some love to Mother Earth this Valentine’s Day and give a gift that shows just how much you care.

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Image source: BrokenSphere / Wikipedia Commons