Latest news in the world of cocoa

Hot off the press from Daily Mail Reporter yesterday: There will be a shortage of 1 million tons of cocoa within 8 years.

With demand growing in places like China, and due to more awareness of the incredible health benefits, there is serious concern that mass market producers will start using “substitutes” to fill up their chocolate bars. This is hardly a viable solution! If an area the size of the Ivory Coast is needed to cultivate more cacao, then what I see is an opportunity to expand across several countries across the Equator that are not yet growing cacao but have the climate to do so. In fact, in the name of promoting shade-grown cacao, perhaps this is just the crop to promote in areas where forests are being cut down to grow a monoculture crop that is decimating the soil. Currently, cocoa is grown in only a handful of countries. If demand grows, my hope is that new farms are cultivated in a sustainable way, maintaining the natural environment.

Also hot off the press….the proliferation of the Fair Trade label is deeming it less credible. Apparently in the UK, fair trade chocolates are so much the norm that the label doesn’t serve to differentiate fair trade bars from others. I’m not sure whether to be happy that fair trade is becoming the norm, or worried that it is causing customers to assume certification doesn’t matter anymore.

And one last update (not as new) – Fair Trade USA will indeed break ties with FairTrade International at the end of this year as they want to expand the certification to larger companies. Traditionally, Fair Trade certification was set up to help small farmer cooperatives. There is concern by FairTrade International that allowing in large companies (where lets face it, auditing and tracing can be much more difficult) will only serve to water down standards. I think this is a legitimate concern and I am more than wary that FT USA is willing to place its seal on items that have just 10% certified fair trade ingredients! The minimum requirement is 20%. I do see opportunity in increasing Fair Trade certified sales through allowing distribution through large corporations in the U.S. (more market reach is a good thing), however, the standards should not be lowered, or Fair Trade in the U.S. will soon become green wash. The dispute is – did FT USA sell out in search of higher profit margins, or, are they simply trying to scale up Fair Trade’s impact by allowing larger farms and companies to participate?

What are your thoughts on this?

Greening the Cocoa Industry

I used to work for a conservation NGO, and there I learned to further appreciate the importance of preserving the rich biodiversity we have. I also learned how interconnected and sometimes at odds economic development is with conservation development. While practitioners in each are working more closely together now, there is still much work to be done in really collaborating with a shared vision.

Cocoa farming is an excellent example to illustrate this conflicted relationship. On one hand you have your cocoa farmers, who are concerned with getting a regular income and putting food on the table for their family. Then you have acres of rainforest that are being clear-cut, slash and burn style, to make room on large plantations for more monoculture crops. Why? Because demand is through the roof, and when faced with increased demands, the forests tend to lose, and human livelihoods tend to win. This does not have to be an either-or relationship! Conservation of trees and wildlife and sustenance of livelihoods can creatively come together and thrive.

Case in point – Rainforest Alliance co-launched the “Greening the Cocoa Industry” Initiative with UNEP and GEF in February of this year. This program is cross-continental and is working actively to help farmers “adopt practices that conserve their environment, increase their income, benefit their families and communities, and provide long-term stability for the cocoa industry.”

I encourage you to check out the link above to learn about the potential impacts of such partnerships. It makes so much sense to work with farmers to give them the tools that can enable them to become stewards of their land. Especially in the cocoa industry because the cacao tree is a crop that can grow and thrive in absolute harmony with other native species. The development of shade-grown cocoa can not only preserve the forests, it can improve livelihoods. This should be a mandated practice and  it is my hope and dream that all the large industries adopt this awareness and contribute to a more conscious-laden industry. It is in their best interest to work with the farmers to preserve their forests to ensure a sustained and quality supply of the world’s dreamiest treat. This is where you, the consumer comes in. Demand quality. Demand to know what your beans were sprayed with. Demand full-cycle knowledge and transparency so you can trace your bar back to the farmer and the tree. If you need another push, check out this ode to shade-grown cacao as a powerful way to preserve wildlife.

With RA certification, you know that the cacao in your bar was shade-grown. It was grown alongside other fruit trees, in the forest’s natural habitat. I applaud RA for providing the necessary training to farmers. They are empowering farmers to become more invested in the cacao tree. They are making it possible for the farmers to become more efficient and knowledgeable so they can increase their yield and the quality of their beans. Shade-grown cacao is generally of this higher quality. So the farmer ends up getting paid more for their higher quality yields, while preserving their natural environment, improving their health (no pesticides), and contributing to symbiotic relations between the human and the tree. There is enough deforestation occurring on a global scale already, and to cut down more habitat to grow a crop that actually grows better and tastes better if grown within a diverse habitat is just plain ridiculous.

How Fair is Fair Trade? Is Nestle’s partnership with FLA legit?

Ok, so I’ve talked about the certifications out there, and I’ve said these are a good stepping stone to knowing that there’s some level of regulation revolving around the production of a fair trade chocolate bar. But, how fair is it really?

This is really hard to discern. While you can be certain that fair trade chocolate is not made of beans that come from farms in West Africa that use child slave labor, you cannot always know or be guaranteed that the farmers who are a part of the cooperatives are receiving enough money to send their kids to school. So, in a culture where most children working on family farms is the norm, is boycotting the answer? How can we discern between trafficked children who’ve been taken away from their homes and children who are working with their families?  Fair trade does guarantee an above market price for the farmer for their cocoa beans, setting a floor price that was designed to protect small producers. With cocoa prices fluctuating, this is better than nothing and does make a difference. However, it is discouraging to learn that large companies can fluff up their image by promoting one fair trade bar amongst many non-fair trade ones, as well as using other ingredients in their chocolate bars that have a gritty value chain. Why not aim for fair practices throughout your business model?!

The fact of the matter is, we have to look beyond to the root causes, those of poverty, corruption, and lack of education. These conditions, ever present in the Ivory Coast, allow for exploitative practices to flourish. Some families have no choice but to have their children work on the farms. On top of that, taxes for cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast are extravagantly high, about 40%, and are pocketed by the government.

So what can we do? I think as consumers, all we can do is demand and purchase Fair Trade chocolate, and ask where our chocolate comes from. If we can push the big players to give us transparency, they can in turn put pressure on the governments to demand fairer labor conditions. As for who pays more, I’d say we all pay more, on a consumer level, and on an industry level.

And, it might be working…as seen in yesterday’s announcement that Nestle is now working with Fair Labor Association to investigate whether there is child labor on the farms they source their cocoa from. When I first read about this I thought…hmm, but, you’ve known, for a good 10 years at least, that’s there’s a high likelihood this is the case. Still, I advocate action on any level, and I guess, they’ve addressed the issue more than they did years ago when they were sued by the Intl. Labor Rights Fund on the issue of child trafficking on farms they sourced cocoa from. My concern however is that FLA themselves have been scrutinized for their credibility. According to FLA Watch, the organization was started by large multi-nationals in the Apparel industry and some non-profits to monitor factory conditions and accredit large companies but was not explicit in calling out unethical practices and may still not be.

I’m no expert, but I hope these efforts by Nestle and FLA are more legitimate than simply image boosting. I just don’t think a large company can overturn its practices without raising the price of its chocolate, if indeed it decides to remove itself from most of its current sourcing options. And then, how about using their massive profits to help build roads and pay the farmers more to raise their standard of living in the Ivory Coast? There have to be viable alternatives and incentives to eliminate forced child labor, and to allow farmers the opportunity to give their children a choice in where they work and what they learn.

What are your thoughts on this? If anyone knows more about certification or has ideas on how consumers can impact better business practices in this industry, please send your comments!