Unless we start paying cacao farmers more, we could be inadvertently contributing to the end of chocolate as we know it.
Fifty-eight million pounds of chocolate will be sold to American customers in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. Interestingly, most buyers will be men; the week prior to February 14 is the only time during the year when men overtake women as primary chocolate buyers. Regardless of your opinion on this Hallmark holiday, it’s undeniable that chocolate plays an important part. We love it and long for it, a symbol of both romantic and parental love.
Now, imagine a world without chocolate, where it was impossible to buy a sweet, tasty bar to savor or dark powder to stir into steaming milk. Unfortunately, this is a very real possibility. The chocolate market is unstable for a number of reasons, as explained by Gastropod hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber in their latest episode, “We Heart Chocolate.” We chocolate-lovers would do well to pay attention to the impending disaster since it’s not yet too late.
The first major threat to chocolate supply is disease. Currently one-third of the annual crop of cacao (the substance from which chocolate is made) succumbs to diseases. This is the tragic result of growing a monoculture on vast plantations, where a single disease can ravage the entire lot. Currently 70 percent of cacao comes from West Africa, which creates added vulnerability.
Secondly, cacao trees like a very particular climate. They will not grow outside of a narrow geographical band that measures 20 degrees north and south of the equator, and this is threatened by climate change. One solution is the development of hybrid varieties, but with increased resilience comes loss of flavor.
Growing cacao in a diverse forest would offset both of these problems, but this requires a third problem to be addressed as soon as possible – lack of compensation for cacao farmers.
Farmers are walking away their cacao plantations because they’re not financially viable. For example, farmers earn a mere 10 cents per $2 chocolate bar. It’s more lucrative to switch to other tropical crops like coffee or palm oil. Says Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love and guest on Gastropod:
“I understand people bristling at the idea of a $10 bar of chocolate, but the truth is that we are not paying enough for these goods. And until we, as consumers, are willing to put more money behind these things, and explore these companies that are trying to reward farmers with money for sustaining these crops, I don’t think we can [alleviate] the fear that chocolate will go away.”
Sethi points out how other foods, such as cheese, beer, and coffee, have all developed large specialty markets, but chocolate remains an outlier, with only one percent of its market considered specialty or high-end. Compared to coffee, whose specialty market represents 50 percent, this is surprising.
People are not yet accustomed to seeking out fair- or direct-trade bars, quite possibly because they don’t understand what it means. Not only does it mean that farmers will be able to implement better, more sustainable agricultural methods for a long-lasting, resilient crop, but it also means that their laborers will be paid better. Currently chocolate has a notorious intimate relationship with slavery, including forced child labor.
These are good facts to keep in mind before heading out to your Valentine’s Day shopping. By all means, choose chocolate for your loved ones, but reach for the single-origin, small company-owned, artisanal chocolate bars, instead of the cheap, mass-produced bars that contain only a small fraction of cacao, with far more additives. Shocked by the price? Remember, you’re doing it for the future of this decadent treat.
Listen to the entire podcast here: