Chocolate: Loved but Misunderstood
December 5, 2015
Chocolate is one of the most loved but misunderstood food products. Compared to current knowledge within the coffee industry (growing, roasting, and brewing) it’s fair to say that we know little about chocolate and even less about cacao, the tree whose fruit is chocolate’s main ingredient.
At Harper Macaw we are just starting our journey as chocolate makers and cocoa importers, and just like most other craft chocolate makers, we strive to not only make the best chocolate possible but to understand and positively impact our suppliers (cacao farmers). Along the way we wish to share our experiences with our community and customers, and we’ll use posts like this to do just that. Perhaps a good way to start is to confront some very serious problems facing the industry: chocolate has long been a force for deforestation, poverty, and even human exploitation.
Witches’ Broom & Deforestation in Brazil
The cacao tree is a delicate tropical rainforest tree that grows underneath the shade canopy provided by taller trees. In the 1980’s and 90’s, a fungal infestation called witches’ broom devastated the cacao growing industry of Brazil, which at the time was the world’s 3rd largest producer (it’s now the 6th behind Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Cameroon). 75% of cacao production was wiped out, and as a result, many farmers, who had not diversified their crops and were already living in poverty, lost their only source of income. Mass-deforestation ensued as these farmers converted their forests and cacao plantations into cattle pastures and soya fields. Today only 3% of the original Atlantic Forest remains.
The Sad State of Cocoa Economics
The commoditization of cocoa beans and the formation of cooperatives that non-selectively combine harvests across small family farms have distorted the economics of the cocoa bean trade. In these systems, regardless of the quality of their produce, farmers are paid the commodity price per volume of cocoa beans. This effectively eliminates incentives, the concept of merit, and ultimately the ability of small farmers to bring themselves out of poverty. The children of cacao farmers are switching to other crops or leaving the farms in search of opportunities in urban centers, which raises questions about the economic sustainability of chocolate’s supply chain. To make matters worse, the lack of transparency and traceability among largest cocoa traders and processors has enabled human trafficking and child slavery. Certification programs such as Fair Trade attempt to certify farms with ethical labor practices and ensure they are paid a minimum price of $2,000 per metric ton ($2,300 for organic) or a $200 premium at market rates over $2,000 per ton. However, farms must buy into the program, and at today’s market price of over $3,300 per metric ton, this premium is not a change agent when smallholder families harvest an average of 1.5 metric tons annually.
These troubling facts were a large part of our inspiration to start Harper Macaw. After researching cacao agroforestry and making multiple trips to cacao farms in Brazil and Colombia, we became aware of the potential to create a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between the cacao plant and its rainforest environment while supporting the families whose livelihoods depend cacao farming. By growing cacao among other productive native rainforest trees, such as banana, rubber, and nuts trees, farmers expand the tree cover on their land while simultaneously increasing income and stability by diversifying their product portfolios. This advanced level of productivity also enables farmers to maintain larger percentages of their land as nature preserves, which improve soil quality, water absorption, and biodiversity that in turn support the health of their productive land areas. With stable ecosystems and more cash from diversified crops, farmers can dedicate resources to producing better cacao, which requires more attention and infrastructure. Finer cacao quality means that farmers can fetch higher prices--often more than double the market rate. Despite the benefits to the farmer, expensive beans make expensive chocolate, and a handful of fine chocolate manufactures aren’t enough to sway the entire industry toward high quality cocoa production.
A call to action
This is where you, the chocolate consumer, come into play. Knowing what good chocolate is, how it’s made, and where it comes from means becoming educated about chocolate. It means scrutinizing brands and demanding more transparency. It means coming to realize the value of craft chocolate makers compared to brands that mass-market cheap chocolate or lean on less meaningful certifications. With cocoa farmers retaining only about 3-6% of the retail price, cheap chocolate is supporting the continuation of the industry’s concerning status quo.
In order to change this, small businesses and concerned consumers alike must accept the reality that chocolate should be expensive. Much more expensive. Sustainable agriculture needs to be about both environmental sustainability AND economic sustainability, not just with cacao in the tropics, but with agricultural goods across the globe. It’s time to actually incentivize farmers to make choices that are good for business and the environment.