Giving Thanks

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving! This is one of my favorite holidays, as it revolves around some of my most loved activities- spending time with good friends and family, and indulging in delicious food and beverages. While chocolate was not on the menu yesterday, I want to give a public thanks to the cacao tree and the goodness it produces.

As I sit quietly here and let a piece of exquisite Michel Cluizel Grand Noir chocolate melt slowly in my mouth, it’s easy for me to convey why I have such a passion and respect for chocolate. This kind of chocolate, purely made, with no unnecessary additives, honors the terroir where  the cacao bean hailed from.  If you think about it, it’s quite amazing that I can smell berries and bark in a fine chocolate bar and taste such depth of flavor when all that’s in it is cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar (very little), and bourbon vanilla pod. It is this recognition and knowledge (of how a cacao flower bloomed into a colorful pod that bore sweet fruit, and beans that then went through a deliberate process of fermenting, drying, roasting, shelling, milling, conching, tempering, and finally moulding, into the bar that I now am consuming), that elevates the whole act of purchasing and eating a chocolate bar.

Simplicity retains integrity and passionate artistry wields raw ingredients into complex and bold flavors that taste different to every tongue.

I feel honored to be able to taste this chocolate dance around in my mouth as the flavors develop. To me, chocolate is not a sweet kick I search for when I’m feeling low on energy or down in the dumps. It’s something I experience. With intent and appreciation. It provides this calm and pleasure that makes a bad day seem not so bad. It is pure joy when enjoyed properly, and it allows me to develop my palate and to wonder about the land and flavor profiles in each country across the equator. It’s delightful!

So I’m thankful to the chocolate makers’ who believe in showcasing a bean’s purity and in picking quality above all. I’m excited that chocolate is making its way back up to being recognized as a valuable, nuanced treat. Not only was the cocoa bean so valued in the past, as money (that did indeed grow on trees), as a cultural tradition (still today, in places like Panama), today it is slowly being revered as a superfood, and being explored in its purest form to extract unique and subtle new flavors in a way similar to that of grapes for wine-making.

As I take you through the history and origins of cacao and how to taste a bar I hope you too develop a grander appreciation for its existence.

Learn. Act. Eat.

Ok folks, I threw a lot of facts your way in the previous post and now here are some tools for you to expand your consumer knowledge and power, make your voice heard, and guide you in how to carefully select your chocolate.

The C10 class at BGI were given an assignment by a faculty member to explore the undercover world of the chocolate industry, and I have chosen some sources from there to share with you.

Learn more:

  • Watch this brief video of a BBC undercover story about a young boy who was trafficked to pick cocoa and then returned home.
  • Read this BBC story on the conflict cocoa if you currently eat bars that are sourced with cocoa from the Ivory Coast. Read this story to see how consumption of chocolate is outweighing supply and affecting prices. Is chocolate worth its weight in gold? I certainly think so.

Act:

  • Letters – I don’t wish to dictate what to write and who to write to, so use your judgment. If you are a Hershey’s fan, go dig into their practices. If you are concerned about something, let them know. I think the point here is to demand accountability and transparency so you have the ability to trace the ‘where’ and ‘how’ this chocolate came from. Traceability with the big companies is extremely difficult, and… lack of measures to trace also leads to a lack of accountability.

Here is contact info for some of the large players. Please keep in mind that all these companies have begun addressing the known issues and, there are other companies that likely could be questioned. This is just the link I came across. I’ll be reporting on these various sustainability initiatives one company at a time in future posts.

Eat:
  • Consumption – What do you look for? Look for certifications, look beyond mass market chocolate. I promise you this is worthwhile. While I don’t expect you to purchase $7-12 bars like I do (although, I hope to pull some of you there), I ask you to consider the true cost of chocolate.
  • Understanding certification – these are the current labels you should look for:

FairTrade USA (the only independent, third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S. and one of 20 members of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO); Rainforest Alliance (RA works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior); USDA Organic; UTZ Certified(one of the largest sustainability certifiers in the world, with a focus on improving and sustaining livelihoods for farmers).

  • So, onto guilt-free eating: there are SO many certified, delicious options! All these chocolate bars were on sale at a Safeway in Portland I went to yesterday for a very reasonable $2-$4:

Newman’s Organic, Theo, Endangered Species, Green & Black’s (now owned by Kraft, but they are FT certified), AlterEco (my favorite is their dark chocolate blackout 85%).

Enjoy these bars! And, if your grocery store does not carry these sustainable brands – ask them to. The more people that do, the more chance they will find a way to accommodate you.

Do you know where your chocolate comes from?

Before you unwrap that inexpensive chocolate you bought at the check out counter today, or prior to sipping on some hot cocoa or that sublime brownie, ask yourself where the chocolate came from, beyond the store shelf. 
As a consumer of a commodity that is rampant with exploitation, it is imperative that you connect your consumption choice to the source and understand how it was made. Remember, you vote with your dollar, through every purchase. And if chocolate is something you purchase often, I implore you to dig deeper into why you should care to know where the cocoa came from.
Here’s the quick and dirty:
  • Almost 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from just 2 countries – the Ivory Coast and Ghana (Source: WCF).
  • Up to 200,000 child slave laborers work on West African cocoa farms (Source: Intl Labor Rights Forum.) I’m not talking about children working on their family farms, but about kids, aged 8 – 14 who are trafficked from neighboring countries and brought to these farms. Kids handling machetes, breathing chemical fertilizers, working long hours, paid nothing. Their pain is our pleasure. How is this OK?
  • The companies that control the supply of cocoa from West Africa: ADM, Cargill, Barry-Callebaut, Nestle). The largest purchasers of this cocoa? Hershey’s, Mars, Cadbury’s, Kraft.
The dilemma here is that I don’t wish to see cocoa farmers in these two countries go out of business. Cocoa is their livelihood. I want them to be paid more so they don’t cut down cocoa pods that aren’t ripened yet in order to receive their wages. I want them to not have to resort to child labor because demand is so high for cheap chocolate, and this is the source for most of the world’s consumption.
 Chocolate companies are also limited in their ability to solely address  this matter  as they don’t own the cocoa farms, so it is necessary to work  with the countries’ (often corrupt) governments on how to eliminate  forced child labor and work with local communities and organizations  to improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers. That said, the large  companies exert considerable control over prices and can push for more  ethical working conditions through their intermediaries, and, the  problem is complex. It requires sincere efforts by the governments of the  Ivory Coast to channel more funds to the farmers and to education. To  read more on slavery’s link to cocoa in the Ivory Coast, go here.
In the U.S., The  Harkin-Engel Protocol was passed in 2001 in an effort to push the industry to work together to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, in accordance with Intl Labor Organization standards. Problem is, the protocol was initially a mandate, and was fought by the industry and thus watered down to be voluntary – to date, deadlines to certify products and wean off child labor cocoa have not been met or adequately reported on. Many argue the ICI‘s efforts should be strengthened.
Being aware of the issues is a first step in deciding what chocolate company to support. There isn’t one clear solution (although one that I do promote is supporting companies that are transparent and fair). On one side, you have  Global Exchange, the ILO, and Equal Exchange advocating for more transparency and more pressure on the large cocoa companies. Then you have the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Organization  working directly with the largest chocolate companies to address these complex issues around the sustainable production of cocoa, issues of slave labor, poverty, deforestation, and livelihoods. Change is occurring, and while I continue investigating this change, I see no other option but to contact companies to push for change, and to choose companies that are open about their value chain.
Stay tuned for a post on consumer tools for education and action.
References:
Clifford, Cassandra. (Oct, 2011) The Child Slavery Behind Your Chocolate. The Netherlands Aid.
North, Rodney. (Sept, 2011) Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry. Equal Exchange.
Parenti, Christian. (2008) Chocolate’s Bittersweet Economy, CNN Money.
(Photo credit: Bill Zimmerman/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) )