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Climate Change Threatens Billion Dollar Valentine Tree

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This year on Valentine's Day consider, for just one moment, where that scrumptious chocolate came from, and you might be surprised to know that it is a gift from the chocolate tree.

The story of chocolate dates back at least 3,200 years to the time of the Olmec Peoples of Middle America - it is rich with history, intrigue and flavor.

In America alone we consume over $14 billion worth of chocolate products including drinks, candy and cosmetics.

In fact, America consumes about 11 pounds per person per year, most of it between meals. The Swiss hold the world record at 22 pounds per person per year.

Chocolate comes from the tropical cacao tree's cantaloupe-sized bean pods. More specifically, it's the flavorsome seeds inside the pod. There are three species with over 90 percent of the pods coming from Forastero cacao.

The most valuable chocolate with a fruity, spicy flavor comes from the Criollo cacao. Trinitario cacao is a cross between the other species and its seeds add extra flavor to the Forastero seeds. Cocoa is the powder made from roasted and ground cacao seeds.

The Mayans drank the bitter seed extract (and added chilies) with every meal, and they traded it with the Aztecs who lived in drier cooler places where cacao trees could not grow. Ever since it was discovered cacao has been in great demand.

Evidence of chocolate in America dates back to about 1000 A.D. in Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, N.M., some 1,000 miles away from the nearest cacao plantation. It was a prized item of trade between the Chaco Canyon residents and the Mayans in Central America.

Chocolate not only tastes good but it alters our body's mood-affecting chemicals including serotonin, endorphins and phenyl ethylamine, which the body releases in response to romance.

Chocolate contains caffeine, antioxidants and also high levels of chemicals known as phenolic compounds, which in chocolate may help combat coronary disease. Phenolics are known to prevent fat-like substances in the blood stream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries. Certain chocolate phenolic compounds known as flavenoids are being tested to combat heart disease.

The Kuna Peoples of Panama drink up to 40 cups of unsweetened cocoa a week and their risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes is very low.

Chocolate does not promote acne. Acne is related to human hormones.

Dogs are extremely allergic to theobromine a stimulant compound in cacao. Chocolate is poisonous and depending upon the quantity it may be fatal for dogs.

Cacao trees naturally grow in the understory, and seedlings need shade. Tiny flowers, growing on tree trunks and lower branches, depend upon midges, other insects and occasionally on bats, which feed on the flower's nectar, inadvertently cross-pollinating the trees.

Inside each large pod is sweet pulp and between 25 and 50 seeds. It takes about five months for the pods to ripen.

In an attempt to increase yield some plantations remove the native canopy thereby casting 100 percent sunshine onto the cacao seedlings. Without all native plants and animals in the tropical rainforest, the pest protection system as well as microbes, fungus and bacteria which act as fertilizers are lost. The cacao trees become very susceptible to disease, must be sprayed with toxic insecticides and the soil treated with liquid-chemical fertilizers.

Moreover, West Africa produces about 40 percent of world's cocoa and at least $118 million per year of their gross $1.4 billion in sales goes towards fueling conflicts and buying firearms. Worse still, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture an estimated 284,000 children are enslaved in hazardous conditions along the Ivory Coast and other African countries, where they work on cacao plantations, applying pesticides and using machetes.

Support Fair Trade Certified cocoa, chocolate bars and chocolate chips sold in retail locations around the globe including Sainsbury's, Coles, Loblaw's, Kroger's and Whole Foods.

Climate change has brought vicious droughts onto the African continent particularly over the past decade, which supplies almost three quarters of the planet's cocoa. Yields from drought-stricken cacao plantations are falling and the price of cocoa has doubled since 2000.

Unless a worldwide carbon tax is ratified by 2016 to reduce by 5 percent each year (until 2036) more than 85 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted daily -- temperatures across the cacao growing regions over the next decade will rise by another 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Hundreds of thousands of small-scale cacao farmers in Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and elsewhere will be forced out of business and the price of cocoa will make chocolate a luxury good only affordable on Valentine's Day.

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and co-author with Chris Maser of their soon to be released book: Life, The Wonder of it All

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