A Chocolate Surprise

01:00 Fri 14th Feb 2003 |

All is not sweetness in the world of chocolate. That won't be news to your dentist, but this is about more than cavities and fillings. So, as something of a Valentine's Day treat, a quick look under the wrapper brings some unwelcome surprises...

Chocolate is brought to you by slave labour
The popular image of chocolate is one of kids merrily scrunching away on their favourite bar. But for many of the children involved in the growing, harvesting and transport of the cocoa bean, life is not so much fun. The cocoa bean gives us chocolate (mixed variously with milk, sugar, hazelnuts, peanuts and a hundred other ingredients). The bean comes from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L. - "the source of the food of the Gods" in Latin).

And the hands that harvest and collect the beans all too frequently belong to boys aged from 9 to 16, working in slave conditions on the small farms of the Ivory Coast, where 43% of the world's cocoa beans grow. The boys are often immigrants from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo - sold, beaten, locked up, mistreated…

How is this allowed to happen
Very many Western companies try to ensure they don't buy the produce of slave labour in the Ivory Coast - yet there are an estimated 15,000 child slaves aged 9-12 working on plantations in the country and several layers of middlemen and agents between the individual farms and the West. And the beans they harvest have to end up somewhere.

Many of the farms are small and isolated: policing would be difficult even if the funding and, perhaps, the political will were in place. The lack of money is actually a double-edged sword: the incidence of slavery has grown as the price of raw cocoa beans has fallen, leaving the small farmers at greater risk of poverty. And why has the price fallen Market forces and the power of the West to impose prices on the producers.

And it isn't just the slave trade that leaves a bitter taste in the world of choccolate...

The supply of chocolate could run out
Well, maybe not run out but demand is growing even as supply falls. We can all understand why demand is on the up -- all those clever adverts for new bars and the zing! we get from eating the stuff -- but the dangers to the supply, specifically of cocoa, are less well known. The cacao tree, which originated in Central America, is increasingly threatened by blight and fungal diseases brought on by contemporary farming methods.

Cocoa bean production in Brazil has fallen by 75% as the result of the fungus, Crinipellis perniciosa. Other threatening diseases have strikingly Hogwartian names - Black Pod (which regularly destroys up to 90% of the crop), Witches' Broom, Frosty Pod Rot, Swollen Shoot and Vascular-streak dieback.

Why are these diseases threatening us now
Cocoa bean production is changing. Growing cacao trees in ordered, manageable farms actually softens them up, makes infestation more likely and epidemics easier to spread. Those small farmers have economic and social pressures that prevent more prudent farming, and the (Western) chocolate companies don't have the desire or the wherewithal to change that. Rainforest environments are being destroyed. Meanwhile, breeding resistant strains of cacao tree is hugely difficult without cloning or genetic enhancement - and that raises different dangers.

In other words...

To be extremely simplistic, the danger is that small farms tend towards a slave labour economy, and big farms tend to produce a weak and vulnerable crop.

Eat an apple instead!

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