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Happy Birthday, Chocolate!

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Chocolate changes the world, but not how you think.

The United States consumes over three billion pounds of chocolate per year. The alleged benefits of chocolate have reached mystical heights: enhances mood, reduces stroke and heart disease, improves vision and blood flow, and even makes you smarter!

Chocolate has been deified to such an extent that Sept. 13 is officially hailed as International Chocolate Day. Milton Hershey, the founder of Hershey's, was born on this day in 1857. Hmmm, sounds like there might be some kind of ulterior motive behind this holiday. In any case, the truth has been out for quite some time -- most of us do have a love affair with chocolate.

In fact, chocolate is changing the world, but not in all the ways that you might think.
Chocolate has another magical quality -- it gets people to listen and pay attention. The mere mention of chocolate turns heads and perks up a crowd. Now you are listening, right?
Chocolate can also help us tell a story.

Chocolate is produced from cacao beans, one of the most important crops in the global tropics. The International Cocoa Organization estimates that 90 percent of the world's cacao is grown by three million smallholders, employing over 14 million workers worldwide.

Cacao, in its natural state, grows in the highly bio-diverse understory of tropical rainforests.

The immense global demand for chocolate has led to the creation of massive industrial cacao producers which produce cocoa in a monoculture environment. Cacao grown in this solitary fashion by mass producers is more susceptible to pest and fungus infestation, requiring chemical treatments. Over eight million hectares of tropical forest have been lost from mass cacao farming worldwide -- a figure that is estimated to double in 25 years if production levels remain constant. These mass producers are bound to the commodity markets and a grower's income is often less than the cost of production. Child labor is another unsavory by-product.

This kind of story leaves us with a bitter aftertaste, but there is a silver lining based on the same story. Chocolate gets people to listen and pay attention.

Direct trade chocolate producers, like Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Mass., among other fair trade companies, are committed to creating a more just supply chain. Taza Chocolate only buys directly from certified organic cacao farmers that practice sustainable agricultural methods, and pays premium prices for their beans.

Chocolate's star power can be used to change the world. United Planet, an international nonprofit based in Boston has teamed up with direct and fair-trade producers, like Taza Chocolate, to hold a Global Conversation webinar for chocolate lovers of all ages, from students to grandparents, to raise awareness for sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation, and fair trade practices.

There are many virtues to chocolate, but we must be restrained when demanding cacao from the earth and make sure we farm and trade the beans in a way that is sustainable and responsible. There is no reason why chocolate can't taste, feel, and be good to each one of us and the world we inhabit.

Let's make International Chocolate Day a day worth really celebrating!