FCIA Fine Chocolate Glossary


When used in combination, the term “cacao ecosystem” refers to both the biological products harvested and the supply chain (that is, the abiotic environment) involved in turning those products into chocolate. Ecologically speaking, an ecosystem collectively represents the living (biotic community) and nonliving (environment) components of a habitat coupled with the energy and nutrient flows between them.

Theobroma cacao, the species of plant from which we ultimately derive chocolate, often thrives best in a diverse, tropical forest ecosystem. For cacao/cocoa, the type of forest (e.g. tropical, subtropical, cloud, etc…) would describe the local ecosystem as one does not generally refer to an ecosystem by referencing a single species – i.e., “cacao ecosystem.”

History of the term ecosystem:

Biotic communities include all living organisms consisting of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. British Botanist Sir Arthur G. Tansley coined the term in 1935 to add to the hierarchy of scale previously established in ecology, spanning from individuals to species, populations, communities, and – later – ecosystems. The illustration below provides a visual contrast between the term ecosystem and the levels that build up to it.

Ecosystem researchers typically investigate how interactions between living and nonliving components shape the way processes occur within particular ecosystems. Such hierarchy in terminology still exists, although ecologists now place more simultaneous emphasis on multiple or broader (that is, landscape) scales.

Types of ecosystems generally refer to their main biota (for example, forest or microbial ecosystems), or a more general type of habitat (for example, terrestrial or aquatic).

Application to cocoa/cacao:

Increasing deforestation endangers the health of cacao ecosystems worldwide, and could add increasing pressure on farmers to grow varieties with larger yields but less flavor.

The business world (see Tsujimoto et al. reference) and other social science disciplines adopt the term “ecosystem” in additional applied ways. This could include a mass-balance approach to describe a distinct unit made up of several components where, under ideal conditions, inputs and outputs account for each other.

Consequently, a healthy ecosystem keeps functioning within a base set of assumptions. When expected exports fall short of the inputs, the generic ecosystem model indicates an imbalance and users look for mechanism(s) to shift productivity back towards the positive end.

Alternatively, an ecosystem could refer to the network necessary to provide a product or service.

Applied example: fine chocolate ecosystem

In addition to the chocolate itself, the “fine chocolate ecosystem” includes the farmers that carefully cultivate flavorful, healthy cacao, and the global industry that creates a marketplace for chocolate derived from ethical, transparent, and intentional practices.

Próximamente versión en español

Ecosystem schematic; graphic by Dr. Romi Burks

Video posted by a North Carolina State University graduate as part of the series, “The Wild Report,” which uses accurate terminology to describe basic ecosystem components

Entry added: December 8, 2022; Entry updated: September 21, 2023
Verified on: September 23, 2023

Authored by

Romi Burks, Professor of Biology & Chocolate Educator
Academic / University Faculty


“The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms,” A. G. Tansley, Ecology (1935): 284-307; access a pdf of this article

A review of the ecosystem concept — Towards coherent ecosystem design,” Masaharu Tsujimoto et al., Technological Forecasting & Social Change 136 (2018): 49–58; access a pdf of this article

“Biodiversity in the Cacao Agroecosystem: Shade Management and Landscape Considerations,” Russell Greenberg. Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

“Cacao agroforestry systems beyond the stigmas: Biotic and abiotic stress incidence impact,” Yeirme Y. Jaimes-Suárez et al., Fronties in Plan Science 13 (2022); link above provides an open access PDF.

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