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A Bitter Farewell to Chocolate

By Jamie Goltz

What if I told you that your favourite sweet treat comes at the expense of environmental and social exploitation? Chocolate, a $80 billion dollar a year industry (Odijie, 2018), provides us with not only a delicious snack but has also become a traditionally shared experience for holidays and celebrations between family, friends, and loved ones. However, our growing global demand for chocolate may have pushed these resources past the point at which they can support, and it might be time for us to boycott the chocolate business.

70% of global cocoa beans are produced in West African countries, dominated by Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire (Gockowski & Sonwa, 2008). Although West Africa only consumes 3% of cocoa beans themselves, they bear the weight of an industry that has destroyed 90% of their original forests and is linked to 70% of illegal deforestation (Carr, 2020; Odijie, 2018; WWF, 2017). Because cocoa trees only produce cocoa at high yields for 30-40 years, farmers regularly clear new forests instead of reusing the same land (Wessel & Foluke Quist-Wessel, 2015; WWF, 2017). These forests are a rich source of biodiversity, inhabiting approximately 1900 different endemic plants and animals, including half of Africa’s mammals, and deforestation is pushing these species to endangered and extinct levels (Gockowski & Sonwa, 2008).

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The cocoa industry has led to economic and social catastrophe. In West Africa, about 90% of cocoa is grown on small family farms only a few acres in size (Gockowski & Sonwa, 2008), and although demand is high, these families continue to struggle financially. Prices for cocoa beans are set by intermediaries, who are the link between large corporations and farmers, preventing farmers to have control over the selling price of their product (Odijie, 2018). According to the World Bank, 60% of the population in Côte d’Ivoire live below the poverty line and make only a few dollars a day (Odijie, 2018). This is an enormous increase from the less than 10% in the 1960/1970s (Odijie, 2018).

Poverty and competition between farmers to provide high yield at a low cost has encouraged cheap child labour (Mammel, 2013). In 2013-2014, it was estimated that 2 million children are used to grow, harvest and transport cocoa beans (WWF, 2017). The conditions in which these children work are horrifying. Some children work over 12 hours a day doing hard labour, are beaten regularly, and bear scars from the machetes they use to harvest the cocoa (Mammel, 2013). It is estimated that 60% of the children working on cocoa farms were younger than 14 (Whoriskey & Siegel, 2019). These children can’t leave these rural farms because they don’t make enough to buy a bus ticket, aren’t paid at all, or in some cases the children are introduced/sold into the occupation at such a young age that they don’t know any better (Mammel, 2013). Although there has been pushback from consumers on child labour, large companies can’t guarantee that child labour wasn’t involved in the production of their products (Whoriskey & Siegel, 2019). It was found that Mars, Nestle, and Hersey can only trace 24%, 49% and less than half of their global cocoa supply to the original farms, respectively (Whoriskey & Siegel, 2019).

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To address these complex issues, chocolate corporations have implemented initiatives for more sustainable cocoa productions, however, they have been criticized for their methods and motives. In the 2000s, West Africa began diversifying their resources to other products such as rubber, a product that can grow in poorer soils and requires less labour, in order to lower their reliance on the cocoa market and increase income from other crops (Odijie, 2018). It was also encouraged because of the increased food demand caused by an increasing population and urbanization (Wessel & Foluke Quist-Wessel, 2015). With global demand for cocoa on the rise and the threat of lower production, large chocolate corporations vowed to implement new “sustainable” initiatives (Odijie, 2018). For example, they introduced fair-trade labelling, yet most farmers are required to pay for this certificate themselves, cutting into their profit and leaving them with less money (Carr, 2020).

Critics state that “a sustainability programme designed to preserve cocoa supply or stunt diversification in cocoa-producing areas is anti-developmental, especially as the product has no domestic use value” (Odijie, 2018), and it is believed that solutions for a more sustainable cocoa production will require changes to the entire industry (Wessel & Foluke Quist-Wessel, 2015). As consumers, we have the obligation to be informed about where our food comes from and the power to choose what impact the foods we eat will have. Until environmental and social sustainability can be addressed in the cocoa industry, we may need to stop eating chocolate.

References

Carr, T. (2020, Feb 13). The Bitter Side of Cocoa Production. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/culture/cocoa-production/

Gockowski, J., & Sonwa, D. (2008, January). The Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP) Working Paper Series (Issue 6) - Biodiversity and smallholder cocoa production systems in West Africa. Retrieved from http://biblio1.iita.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12478/3618/U08RepGockowskiBiodiversityNothomNodev.pdf?sequence=1

Mammel, M. (2013, November 26). Child Slavery: The Bitter Truth behind the Chocolate Industry . Retrieved from https://www.terry.ubc.ca/2013/11/26/child-slavery-the-bitter-truth-behind-the-chocolate-industry/

Odijie, M. E. (2018). Sustainability winners and losers in business-biased cocoa sustainability programmes in West Africa. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 16(2), 214-227.

Wessel, M., & Foluke Quist-Wessel, P. (2015). Cocoa production in West Africa, a review and analysis of recent developments. NJAS - Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, Volumes 74–75, 1-7.

Whoriskey, P., & Siegel, R. (2019, June 5). Cocoa’s child laborers. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/business/hershey-nestle-mars-chocolate-child-labor-west-africa/

WWF. (2017). Bittersweet: chocolate's impact on the environment. Retrieved from https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/spring-2017/articles/bittersweet-chocolate-s-impact-on-the-environment

Images

Nestlé. (2011, Oct 17). Working with the Fair Labor Association. Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nestle/7461745838/in/photostream/

Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. (2006, Nov 29). Cocoa production in Ghana. Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cgiarclimate/25651592728