Ah, Valentine’s Day. Chocolate, roses, romance. Well, the “romance” aspect of Valentine’s Day might not always work out the way we’d like it to. But what could be wrong with chocolate and roses, Valentine’s staples enjoyed by even the single among us?
Unfortunately, a lot is wrong with chocolate and roses, and it has nothing to do with fat content or seasonal over-pricing at floral shops. What’s wrong with these favorites are how they’re produced — and the consequences of that production for both humans and the environment.
Chocolate’s main ingredient, cocoa, originally comes from the Latin American cacao tree. Growing naturally in the rainforest, these shade-loving trees are an important part of local ecosystems. A different story, however, is the high-yield cacao hybrid developed in recent decades to provide enough cocoa for the world’s chocolate trade (a trade fueled largely by U.S. demand). Because these “technified” hybrids require intense sunlight and exhaust the soil beneath them so quickly, farmers must constantly clear cut already shrinking rainforests to acquire more land for the cacao hybrids. According to the Sierra Club magazine and Global Exchange, cacao production has resulted in the deforestation of 14 percent of West Africa’s rainforests, as well as significant deforestation in Latin America.
Substantial amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used in cacao production. Not only do these toxic substances encourage the development of pesticide-resistant diseases and pests, but they also poison the animal and human communities around them, especially the workers who farm the cacao fields. But the pesticides and chemicals don’t stop there: residues of these substances remain on the beans that go into processing to make the chocolate we eat.
According to the U.S. State Department’s year 2000 Human Rights Report, the cocoa industry has another consequence: 15,000 children between the ages of 9 and 12 have been sold into slavery on cocoa, cotton and coffee plantations. Even when workers are paid, their wages are dismally small; they get about five cents for every dollar spent on chocolate.
And what about the Valentine’s Day flowers? Maybe you shouldn’t stop and smell the roses … or even touch them. More likely than not, those dozen red roses from your honey came from Ecuador or another South American country, as most roses sold in the U.S. do. One major problem is that most rose plantations in Ecuador and other countries use considerable amounts of dangerous pesticides.
Many of these roses are doused in toxic chemicals like Aldicarb and DDT that are banned or regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and many other developed nations. Residues on those perfect red flowers can be 50 times more concentrated than on conventional food imports. Handling or touching these residues can be a health hazard, especially for the many Ecuadorian women who work with these flowers every day. A U.N. International Labor Organization study reported many symptoms from headaches and fatigue to miscarriages and birth defects due to rose workers’ jobs in close contact with pesticides. These workers don’t complain for fear of losing their jobs with the major rose companies that control most plantations and the employment opportunities in towns.
The reason the use of these pesticides is regulated in the United States is that they have been scientifically shown to be harmful to human and environmental health, as well as to the pests that they target. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world this is not the case. Products, such as roses, are grown with harmful chemicals and then exported into the U.S. market. Because flowers are not meant for consumption they do not undergo required toxicology tests normally performed on imported food products by the FDA. However, this does not mean that their production doesn’t have serious public health and environmental costs.
The truth about conventional chocolate and rose production isn’t pretty. But there are ways to spread the love this Valentine’s Day that are better for humans and the environment. We can buck the trend and give less traditional gifts like a potted plant or a gift certificate for a picnic. Or we can still enjoy traditional favorites by purchasing fair trade and organic alternatives. These varieties of chocolate and roses are produced using sustainable, environmentally friendly farming methods that protect human and animal health and preserve rainforests. Earth- and health-friendly chocolate is available in New Haven at Gourmet Heaven, Edge of the Woods and Ten Thousand Villages. Organic roses sold at competitive prices can be found online on sites like Organic Bouquet, Inc. or Diamond Flowers. And look for a sample of organic chocolate in Commons during lunch today.
Chelsea Purvis is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Julia Shrader-Lauinger is a junior in Pierson College. They are members of the Yale Sustainable Food Project Student Group.