Few things that we buy are so loaded with implications as is chocolate. Cacao only grows in a belt roughly 10 degrees on either side of the equator, in rich, well-drained soils. According to Jo Anne Tacorda in Alternatives Journal, 73% of the world’s cocoa is from Africa, particularly from the top-cocoa-producing countries of Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria. Carol Off wrote in her book Bitter Chocolate that much of this is harvested by child labor; speaking of Ivory Coast, she writes about what has happened in that country since 1993:
Most major manufacturers of chocolate just say they buy their cocoa from the big agricultural conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midlands and Cargill, so they continue to avoid the issue of Blood Chocolate. They are supposed to be doing something; according to In these times,
The country fell apart, its neighbours in Liberia at civil war, its other neighbour Mali in a drought. Children are kidnapped and sold across the border to harvest the beans, and yet through all of this destruction and death, bags of cocoa beans keep showing up at the port.
In 2001, eight members of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, including industry leaders Mars and Nestle, signed the non-binding Harkin-Engel “Cocoa Protocol” that committed the companies to eliminating the “worst of child labor” in West Africa. Participating manufacturers were supposed to have met the international agreement’s standards by 2005, but hundreds of thousands of children continue to work on cocoa plantations in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, according to a 2009 Tulane University study of the cocoa industry.
Deena Shanker at Grist is more specific:
For African children, chocolate poses a much bigger threat than just cavities. A 2011 Tulane University study found a “projected total of 819,921 children in Ivory Coast and 997,357 children in Ghana worked on cocoa-related activities” in 2007-2008. (I use the term “work” loosely: That implies payment, when most of these children are in fact slaves who are imprisoned on farms, beaten for trying to leave, and denied any wages.)
Look at the Labels: Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance
If you want Slave-Free chocolate, you have to look for the labels. Kyle Scheihagen of Stop Chocolate Slavery likes Fair Trade:
In the Fair Trade system, purchasers of products like coffee and cocoa beans, bananas, and sugar typically agree to pay an above market price for the products. The extra money is intended to help the small farms and co-operatives selling the products to make lasting improvements in their communities, by going towards schools, hospitals, and other improvements in infrastructure. The purchasers of the products, meanwhile, who are typically companies intending to import and sell the products yet again in another country, can then label the products as "Fair Trade certified", which lets the end consumer know that he or she isn't colluding in exploitation against some poor third world farmer. And thus, in theory, everyone is happy.
It sounds good to me, and, as I write, I've yet to hear any claims that the Fair Trade system is somehow corrupt, or phony, or any other adjective that might mitigate its goodness. Of course, the higher price paid to the Fair Trade farmer is usually passed on to the end consumer, but it seems a small price to pay, indeed, to know that you aren't colluding in the exploitation of poverty.
Farmers have to pay thousands of dollars for that certification, and [Clay]Gordon [of The Chocolate Life] points out that money that farmers could’ve otherwise invested in their employees, land, or communities is instead partially going to support rent, air-conditioning bills, and salaries for Fair Trade’s 60-person office in Oakland.
I personally have not forgiven Fair Trade USA for walking out, for selling out the cooperative movement that was the basis for Fair Trade, and would not purchase chocolate with their label on it. (For Fair Trade USA's side of the story, see Can Fair Trade Coffee Be More Fair?)
There are alternatives; international Fair Trade is now selling into the States, and there is also Rainforest Alliance. It has been criticized for not being rigorous enough, particularly with respect to labor rights, or requiring 100% certified content in RA labeled chocolate.
I spent a couple of days touring Rainforest Alliance facilities in Ecuador in 2009, and can attest that the RA's work there has made a big difference. RA writes:
The Rainforest Alliance and its partner Conservación y Desarrollo (C&D) have worked to restore Ecuador's native cocoa heritage since 1997. With support from the German government's Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and other donors and in partnership with Kraft Foods, more than 3,000 cocoa growers in six communities have strengthened their organizations, improved their farming practices, upgraded their drying and fermenting technology and sold Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa at a premium price.
See a slideshow of my visit in Your Choice of Chocolate Matters.
Will we run out of it?
Perhaps, due to climbing demand, competition from more valuable crops, and climate change:
Planet Getting Too Hot for Chocolate? Study Finds Climate Change Could Threaten Cocoa Farmers
The world's cocoa supply could be in danger from climate change, according to a new study from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), which says that prices are likely to skyrocket if preventative measures aren't taken.
But it's good for you!
-If you buy the right stuff. MNN tells us:
If you eat chocolate daily, make it dark
Another study confirms that dark chocolate has more health benefits than other forms of chocolate, particularly for your heart.
New study: Eating chocolate linked to the Nobel
In what may be the best news for chocolate fanatics yet, a new study finds a link between the sweet confection and winning the big prize.
Chocolate eaters are slimmer, says study
Too good to be true? New findings suggest something in chocolate may make the calories you eat less likely to be deposited as fat.