Chocolate has a dark history. Here’s why you should know what you’re biting into


You can almost taste the words when author Carol Off describes her favorite food.

“Very good chocolate is the most perfect and exquisite food on the planet, which melts at the same temperature … as your body,” Ms. Off told ABC RN’s Rear Vision.

“Pure” chocolate is derived from cocoa, the name for the unprocessed bean. And once the bean has been processed, ground and roasted, it is called cocoa.

But while the end product can be incomparably tasty, cocoa bean production has been linked to the exploitation of farmers, corporate apathy, and adult and child slave labor.

Ms. Off says knowing the dark side of chocolate production doesn’t preclude enjoying the product, but it should force us to take some action.

How cocoa moved around the world

Cocoa trees have been traced to both the Mesoamerican region – present-day Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras – and also to the Amazon River Basin in South America, says researcher Ingrid Fromm. at Bern University of Applied Sciences. .

In pre-Hispanic times, the Mayan, Aztec and Olmec cultures greatly valued cocoa. They consumed it mashed into a thick, bitter drink, says Dr. Fromm, who is also a board member of the Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa.

The Spanish conquistadors who came to Mexico in the 16th century brought the exotic drink back to Spain. From there, the cocoa was transported to the rest of Europe, she explains.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, Switzerland became the first country to add powdered milk to cocoa, creating milk chocolate and the first chocolate bars.

“This was a huge breakthrough for the cocoa market and for industrialized food products,” said Ms. Off, who is the author of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.

“Not only was it something easy to sell, transport and package, but it was also affordable to the masses.”

And that’s where the trouble started.

Rising demand leads to serious problems

As the popularity of chocolate grew, so did the demand for cocoa beans. To keep pace, cocoa was transported from the Americas to the African continent.

In 1855, the Portuguese brought cocoa to the island of Sao Tome off the West African coast, where a very humid tropical climate was ideal for cocoa production, says Dr Fromm.

Eventually, the bean made its way from the island to the mainland.

Today, 70% of cocoa production takes place in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Cameroon.

And in 2021, approximately 5 million tons of processed cocoa beans were produced worldwide.

Dr Fromm says cocoa is mainly produced by small-scale and “very resource-poor” producers.

These farmers do not have the same economic power as the big chocolate companies and the price they can get for their cocoa beans has gone down.

Molly Harriss Olson, CEO of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, and former Chair of the Fairtrade Global Board, said its 2015 report showed that in the cocoa industry “farmers all over the world live below [the] $1 a day poverty line”.

“As international pressure intensified to lower prices, it became untenable for [family farms] trying to produce it at that price,” says Ms. Off.

Many cocoa bean farmers in West Africa live below the poverty line.(Unsplash: Rodrigo Flores)

She says farmers who lack power or influence in their supply chains “really have to take the price that these very large corporations can impose through their market power.”

This means that “family-type work” is common in West Africa, and particularly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, says Dr Fromm.

“If you’re a grower who owns maybe more than two hectares of land, you can hire labor for that particular season, the harvest season, but it’s usually labor family.

In 2012, Tim Costello, then CEO of World Vision, said that 61% of children who work on cocoa plantations have not been able to go to school “so we can eat cheap chocolate”.

In effect research undertaken by Tulane University in New Orleans revealed that in 2013/14, 2.26 million children worked in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Ms Off says chocolate companies denied knowledge of such practices when NGOs first sounded the alarm.

“[The NGOs reported] that it appeared that there was a form of slave labor andchildren moved not only from other regions, but from other countries, to cocoa growing regions in order to work on these farms without money,” she says.

As pressure mounted in the early 2000s, including in the U.S. Congress, “it became a political interest to question whether chocolate companies were involved in some really bad practices to make their product,” says Ms Off .

But, in 2008, Fortune magazine indicated that “little progress has been made”.

And according to the same publication in 2016, an estimated 2.1 million children in West Africa “still do the dangerous and physically taxing work of harvesting cocoa”.

Conflict-free chocolate?

There has been some improvement since then, says Dr. Fromm. Today, many large companies are trying to guarantee farmers a decent income. She hopes revenues will continue to rise over the next decade.

“This, of course, is very important to consumers in Australia and Europe and different parts of the world because we… want to consume a product where we know we are providing a good income to people at the source and [we’re] not to be the engine of a difficult situation for the farmers.”

But, rather than consumer-driven change, Ms. Off wants to see it come from the top.

“I will never tell people to stop eating chocolate, because I love it and I will continue to eat it. How can I not?” she says.

“In a certain way, [we can] alleviate problems associated with the purchase of Fairtrade chocolate.

“But I think the only way that will change is if you start insisting that your government change the laws and make it impossible for any product, including chocolate, that contains… . poor work practices.

“So enjoy your luxuries, enjoy these moments. But let’s change the laws and start seeing these practices subject to international labor practice scrutiny.”

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