The Dark Side of Chocolate: What Our Love Affair With Cocoa Means for the World

In addition to labor issues, chocolate plantations can be responsible for deforestation. But it can also be empowering to farmers and relatively healthy for the environment.

Truffles from Posh Chocolat
Photo Credit: Ari LeVaux

Valentine's Day is the chocolate industry's holiday season. With an eye toward this February's annual love-fest, the International Labor Rights Forum purchased an advertising slot on a jumbotron outside the Super Bowl's Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on which to broadcast a video called "Hershey's Chocolate, Kissed by Child Labor."

Africa produces 70 percent of the world's cocoa -- much of it with the region's infamously cheap labor. "In West Africa, where Hershey's sources much of its cocoa, over 200,000 children are forced to harvest cocoa beans every year," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, via a press release.

On the day the Super Bowl ad was announced, Hershey's released a statement detailing steps it would take toward improving labor and sustainability practices, including a $10 million investment in its West African suppliers. That was enough to buy the company a temporary reprieve from the ILRF.

"Hershey's pledged to take the first step to address rampant forced and child labor in its supply chain," said Sean Rudolph, ILRF's campaigns director, "so we decided to pull the ad as a gesture of good faith."

The scuffle highlights the dark side of a food that, like love, can be bitter or sweet. In addition to labor issues, chocolate plantations can be responsible for deforestation, when growers raze rainforest to plant more cocoa trees.

But chocolate production can also be empowering to farmers and relatively healthy for the environment. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit some cocoa producers in Brazil that demonstrate the potential of chocolate to create positive change.

Like coffee, chocolate trees can be grown beneath the forest canopy instead of replacing it. In the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil this cultivation strategy is called cabruca. Also sometimes called "chocolate rainforests," cabrucas are composed of shade-tolerant cacao trees grown under a forest canopy. Leaf litter is allowed to build up on the forest floor, and a diverse ecosystem of plants and insects develops. Cabrucas can include other cash crops like rubber trees, cassava, and banana, papaya, and other fruit trees.

The cabrucas I visited are a far cry from the monoculture-style chocolate plantations that dominate the chocolate industry. Many such plantations have failed in recent years thanks to nutrient depletion and the spread of a plant disease called Witch's Broom. The cabrucas have shown dramatically more resistance to these problems. One grower I visited, a Swiss expat named Ernst Goetsch, has made good business of buying depleted and abandoned chocolate monoculture plantations and converting them into vibrant cabrucas. He's managed to employ many local people and restore value to previously worthless land, while producing a lot of chocolate.

In addition to the environmental benefits, the cabruca system offers a solution to the labor problems often associated with chocolate. The cacao plant is extremely responsive to tender loving care like pruning, mulching and amendments with compost. On a small scale, given lots of love, cocoa yields can more than double. This makes it a viable cash crop for small landholders, especially when you consider the other valuable grown alongside the chocolate plants.

There's a Brazilian agricultural cooperative called Cabruca that helps sustainable, fair trade chocolate growers, large and small, grow their crop and market their beans to companies like Valrhona, in France, or the Swiss chocolatier Laederach. Be prepared to pay more for the conscience-soothing options, and expect a better-tasting product. The Cabruca cooperative also sells wine made from the fruit of the cacao plant (chocolate is made from the seeds).

While the term cabruca is used only in Brazil, the concept of rainforest-friendly chocolate has taken root to some degree wherever chocolate is grown, even in West Africa. As part of Hershey's new commitment to fair-trade and sustainably grown chocolate, the company's Bliss and Dagoba lines will soon be sourced exclusively from Rainforest-Alliance certified operations. The change is due in part to pressure from groups like the International Labor Rights Forum, and in part to chase profit; artisanal chocolate is one of the fastest growing segments of the food business.

"Every time there's a new trade show we see new faces," Jason Willenbrock of Posh Chocolat in Missoula, Montana, told me. When he and his wife Ana opened shop seven years ago, they were the only chocolatiers in Montana. Now there are more than a dozen.

Willenbrock says they considered riding the "bean to bar" wave, where producers make products from "single origin" cacao from a specific region or even a specific plantation or cabruca. Single-origin chocolate is the equivalent of "varietal" wines, made from a single type of grape grown in one place.

As with wine, blended chocolates will often top single origin products in taste, and blending is where experts like Culinary Institute of America-trained Willenbrock have an edge. He describes chocolate in terms like "buttery or chalky mouthfeel," and notes the complex terroir of cacao grown in diverse systems like cabrucas.

Chocolate is an industry rife with stories, and stories -- like rainforest friendly labels -- sell product, even if they're plain wrong, says Willenbrock, who cites the fame of Belgian chocolate as an example. "This time of year, everyone wants to make chocolate fondue. And for some reason many of the recipes call for Belgian chocolate," Willenbrock told me. He says when Valentine's Day rolls around he has to brace for the annual onslaught of fondue makers looking for Belgian chocolate.

It's frustrating, he says, because Belgian chocolate makers tend to be "among the worst" of the Africa-sourcing chocolate makers, in terms of environmental and labor practices, and also in terms of quality. "There's absolutely no reason to choose Belgian chocolate, for fondue or anything else," he said.

Recipe: Jason Willenbrock's (non-Belgian) chocolate fondue 1 1/4 cup heavy cream
6 oz chopped chocolate (Prefers South American origin chocolates in the 65% range)
1 oz cognac or brandy
Sponge cake squares or strawberries for dipping  
In a heavy bottom pot slowly bring cream to simmer. Slowly incorporate the chopped chocolate by whisking in a little at a time until it melts completely. Whisk in the cognac and keep it warm. Serve immediately with sponge cake squares or strawberries.  

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
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