How Chocolate Can Save the Planet Chocolate is a wonderful thing, but how can it help combat global climate change? Cacao trees — the source of chocolate — grow well in rainforests, and rainforests store carbon. So researchers are working to help preserve the forest and to grow more chocolate.
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How Chocolate Can Save the Planet

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How Chocolate Can Save the Planet

How Chocolate Can Save the Planet

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Today's installment of our year-long NPR National Geographic Series Climate Connections begins here at Biagio Fine Chocolate in Washington, D.C., where I'm about to sample some of the wares.

Biagio Abbatiello is one of the proprietors.

How are you?

Mr. BIAGIO ABBATIELLO (Owner, Biagio Fine Chocolate): I'm fine, John. How are you doing today?

YDSTIE: Great. And I'm even - I'll be even better when I get to taste some of these chocolate. What have you got?

Mr. ABBATIELLO: Well, what we had for you right here is Arriba 72 percent dark chocolate.

YDSTIE: All right. Let me take it by the wrap. Mm. Mm. That's delicious. Now, you might be wondering what chocolate has to do with climate change. Well, NPR's Joanne Silberner went to Brazil to find out.

JOANNE SILBERNER: So, I'm standing there in the middle of a little bit of paradise. In front of me are cacao trees. Behind me are beautiful red flowers. Above me are rubber trees that are probably about 30 or 40 feet in the air.

Mr. HOWARD SHAPIRO (Chief Agronomist, Mars Incorporated): Ain't it beautiful? I love this place.

SILBERNER: Howard Shapiro has brought me here. He's chief agronomist at chocolate manufacture, Mars Incorporated. Few places on earth are more inspiring to him than this patch of rainforest in eastern Brazil.

Everywhere you look, something is growing. Orchids nestle in the crooks of trees. There are at least 400 shades of green. The forest is loud with birds and insects.

Some areas have been thinned out and planted with cacao trees - the source of chocolate. The pods contain the magical beans that Aztecs counted like gold. The cultivated cacao trees grow just a bit higher than a man can reach. The rainforest trees tower over them like something out of Dr. Seuss.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Some are beautiful like lollipops, and some are flat like a plate. And they're different heights.

SILBERNER: And here is the climate connection. Rainforest trees and plants store massive amounts of carbon, keeping it from getting into the air as carbon dioxide.

But there's a lot less rainforest than there once was. There used to be 330 million acres of rainforests in eastern Brazil, called the Mata Atlantica. Hundreds of years ago, settlers arrived and began destroying the forests for the wood and to create fields for pastures and crops. Only 7 percent remains, and destruction is still going on. Every time a tree is burned, its stored carbon is released.

And that worries Dario Ahnert, a plant expert at the State University of Santa Cruz in Eastern Brazil.

Dr. DARIO AHNERT (State University of Santa Cruz): The carbon is going to get back again into the atmosphere and more and more of the planet.

SILBERNER: Ahnert says farmers need an incentive to save the remaining forest. He hopes chocolate will be that incentive. Chocolate used to be a huge industry here. In the last two decades, though, plant disease and low prices for cocoa beans devastated the industry. Many farmers turned to other ways of making a living - logging trees or burning them for farmland or pasture, and then abandoning the used up land.

Now Ahnert wants to persuade farmers to return to chocolate and preserve the forest. He takes us to see a friend who shows it can be done.

Mr. JOAO TAVARES (Farmer, Brazil): It's Joao Tavares. I'm a farmer. I'm a fourth generation of cocoa producer.

SILBERNER: A worker rakes cocoa beans so that all are exposed to the broiling sun. The air is dry and hot. Tavares and his brother and father have 2,200 acres of rainforest planted with cacao trees. They use a method called cabruca - cutting down just a few of the taller rainforest trees and planting the mid-high cacao trees underneath.

Mr. TAVARES: All of our plantation is inside the cabruca.

SILBERNER: Tavares invites us into his forest.

Mr. TAVARES: (Spanish spoken)

SILBERNER: The ground is covered in a thick layer of composting leaves. It's moist and shady and cool here in a cabruca. Football-shaped pods striped in yellow and green and orange and brown jut out from the trunks and branches of the cacao trees.

Tavares has worked hard to maintain and also restore his little piece of the rainforest.

Mr. TAVARES: In this past 10 years, we plant a lot of trees, wild trees, because we understand that we have to preserve the cabruca, even if you have less production.

SILBERNER: He gets fewer cacao trees to the acre by planting inside the forest. But he avoids the drawbacks other farmers struggle with when they grow cacao trees on more open land.

Mr. TAVARES: You have more production, but you have lots of problems. You have more insects and disease, so we decide to preserve.

SILBERNER: There's also an expanding market for environmentally friendly chocolate. Tavares has been able to get a premium for some of his crop.

Still, his friend Prof. Dario Ahnert admits cabruca is a tough sell. Farmers want more modern approaches and quicker money, which is why Ahnert is hoping that cabruca can become part of the carbon credit market. Farmers would then get money for preserving forest trees, as well as for their chocolate.

Prof. AHNERT: And we hope of that somehow, one day this guy can receive for maintaining these trees, so you could increase the income. So I hope someday the people that maintain this area are able to get carbon credits.

SILBERNER: The World Agroforestry Centre and Mars company are currently studying how carbon storage can be measured on cabruca-like farms, and whether a carbon-credit system would help farmers and the environment

And there's an even more ambitious idea out there. Howard Shapiro of Mars, Inc. hopes that chocolate could even bring back a little of the forest paradise that's been lost.

He's doing tests with local scientists at Brazil's national chocolate research institute. He shows us the three-acre test plot.

Mr. SHAPIRO: So what we're looking at is an area that's been planted on degraded land.

SILBERNER: After the forest disappeared, the soil became hard and compact, like yellow cement. Only weeds grew in it. Shapiro and his colleagues asked local farmers what sort of plants they like in the long run, and also while they were waiting for the soil to become rich enough to support cacao trees.

Mr. SHAPIRO: And what we decided to do was we would begin with annual crops - corn, beans, things that have a cash crop value, melons, squashes - and begin to establish bananas for shade, and then start to plant cocoa.

SILBERNER: And rubber trees, and the heliconium flowers. The first plants went in seven years ago. Now you can easily grab a handful of soil. It's dark brown, moist and crumbly, like devil's food cake with worms. But the worms are good for the soil. The cacao trees are budding.

Mr. SHAPIRO: You could see all the little flowers on this tree directly in front of you, all those little pink buds. It's healthy. These trees are healthy.

SILBERNER: Shapiro wants to work out the details, but he's ready to say the project is a success.

Mr. SHAPIRO: We learned that you could take totally abandoned land, you could restore it to profitability after about three years.

SILBERNER: So will preserving and even replanting some of this forest in eastern Brazil fix the Earth's climate problem? No. But in this little corner of the world, it may help. And at least we'll have more chocolate.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

YDSTIE: You can find the latest information on Climate Change from National Geographic magazine at

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