The True Cost of Cheap Chocolate

Thousands of years ago, the Maya people of Central America believed that chocolate was the food of the gods: rare and precious. Today, chocolate is the food of the people... Worldwide people consume over 7 million tons of chocolate each year! But its widespread availability comes at a cost that exceeds its price tag.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans which come from the pods of the Theobroma cacao, a tree that requires extremely specific climatic conditions to thrive. Africa is the leading  producer of cocoa, followed by South America and Asia. In fact, all chocolate is grown in a narrow band within 20 degrees north and south of the equator. In other words, land where cacao trees can flourish is very limited.

Our ravenous demand for chocolate is causing large-scale forest clearing to make way for cacao farmland. With suitable farmland dwindling and demand for chocolate projected to rise 2-5% every year, cacao plantations are encroaching into protected lands and critically important habitat reserves. 

What’s more, this deforestation is helping drive climate change, which in turn is hurting cocoa production. Other major threats to cacao trees are pests and diseases, which already account for 30 to 40 percent in annual cocoa losses; a problem worsening due to climate change... It's a downhill cycle.

Inequality in the cocoa chain means farmers are trapped in extreme poverty and can’t afford to invest in more progressive farming methods. The average cocoa farmer earns between US$0.5 to $1.25 per day - well below the international poverty line - keeping them impoverished and fuelling child labor. While the chocolate industry is worth more than $100 billion dollars (and growing), more than 80 percent of cocoa comes from 7 to 8 million small family farms who can barely afford basic necessities. Cocoa farmers in the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana - thought to be responsible for about 60% of the world’s cocoa - earn only 3 to 6% percent of a chocolate bar’s retail value.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes via Unsplash.

These financial pressures inevitably lead to abusive labor practices. “Child trafficking generally occurs when planters are searching for cheaper sources of labor for replanting,” writes Michael Odijie, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, in The Conversation. “The number of child laborers in the Ivorian cocoa industry increased by almost 400,000 between 2008 and 2013.”

The major chocolate brands - Hershey, Mars and Nestlé - have pledged to eliminate child labor and slavery in their supply chains, but in 2019, The Washington Post reported that none of them could guarantee their chocolates were produced without child labor. This means that many children in cocoa communities are forced to work instead of going to school because their families depend on their income.

But consumers have the power to promote industry change by increasing the demand for ethically-produced chocolate. Chocolate lovers have the purchasing power to push the industry to change, by supporting ethical chocolate brands. “Capitalism depends on the demand and supply of a product in the food industry,” said Alistair Gower, founder of artisan chocolate maker Chocolate Tree, in a TEDxGlasgowCaledonianUniversity Talk.

In addition to buying from chocolate companies that pay cocoa growers fair wages, consumers can also protect farmers and their livelihoods by supporting companies that source their beans from sustainable farms. One promising method is agroforestry; growing cocoa crops under a forest canopy rather than in large plantations of exclusively cacao trees. In agroforestry, cacao is planted amongst other rainforest trees, which provides them with shade, protects them from wind and soil erosion and allows for cultivation without deforestation. “Cacao trees cultivated by this approach appear less vulnerable to pests, and the soil better retains its ability to support cacao over the long term,” according to the US NOAA. Agroforestry offers another big advantage: Carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared remains stored in the trees.

So next time you get a chocolate craving (probably soon), here are some tips to help you satisfy your sweet tooth while also looking out for cocoa farmers and the planet...

1. Don’t give up chocolate! Millions of people depend on cocoa farming to earn a living; giving up chocolate would only hurt them.

2. Shop smart. Look for chocolate that is independently certified by the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade - groups that monitor environmental and labor conditions. By changing your purchasing habits, you’ll also signal to companies that consumers want ethically-produced chocolate.

3. Get used to paying more for chocolate - it's worth it. Instead of viewing chocolate as a cheap, plentiful commodity, think of it more like a good coffee or wine - something that’s worth paying a little extra for.

4. Find a favourite! Websites like The Good Shopping guide, Ethical Consumer and Shop ethical! can help you discern which chocolate manufacturers are genuinely committed to ethical practices. Support your favourites!

We proudly include Alter Eco chocolate truffles in our kids' party-bag fillers range... delicious chocolate that's better for them and our planet!


© Written by Anika O. for The Good Party Co. based on The steep price we pay for chocolate - Gulnaz Khan, Feb 10, 2021, IDEAS.TED.COM 

Main photo credit: Sara Cervera via Unsplash

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