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The Dark Side of Chocolate

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A bar of chocolate

Rich and flavorful, chocolate’s the product for which people all around the world have developed a sweet tooth. But the worldwide demand for the confection has come with human rights and sustainability issues, and not all brands of chocolate address them. So, before you buy this sweet treat for your friends, family, or significant other, check out what SIS professor Johanna Mendelson Forman says consumers should be aware of in regards to chocolate production.

Child Labor

The cocoa bean is the primary ingredient in chocolate, and it is grown mainly in places with tropical climates. In fact, 70 percent of the crop is grown in West African countries and picked by children.

“There’s an ongoing fight with the use of child labor in chocolate,” says Mendelson Forman. “Most of the world really likes chocolate, but meanwhile, some of these kids who harvest chocolate have never tasted the finished product.”

Problems with Growing Chocolate

Along with child labor, one of the biggest challenges with the growth and harvesting of chocolate is deforestation. Many of the countries in which cocoa is harvested are being deforested because there is poor maintenance of the forest land. Cocoa can be grown in areas that are at the edge of rainforests, and as the crop is growing, there are more incursions into rainforests because people are planting or clear-cutting areas that were once rainforest.

“With mass deforestation, you have more runoff, you have less of an ability to grow products,” says Mendelson Forman. “That’s been a problem in West Africa, particularly in Côte d'Ivoire. Deforestation leads to drought, and drought leads to hunger because people can’t grow crops. It’s a never-ending cycle of destruction of the land.”

While cocoa is a highly profitable crop, it often takes a while for a farmer to see results. It can take five years for anyone who is growing their crop to get some yield, so farmers need to find other means of production in the interim.

Food Security

Sixty percent of Côte d'Ivoire’s export revenue comes from cocoa, according to Mendelson Forman: “This tells you something about the governance [of the country]. Whenever there’s a problem with food security, you have to look at the government. There’s no diversification of crops; there’s no extension service of farmers. When you have monoculture economies like this, what does that tell you about their concern for people? You have to diversify so people can eat and grow other types of crops.”

Mendelson Forman likens Côte d'Ivoire’s reliance on cocoa to Liberia’s relationship with rubber: “Rubber was all they grew…then came a civil war. When you have that kind of dependency on one crop, it makes you very, very vulnerable.”

What to Look for When Buying Chocolate

According to Mendelson Forman, consortiums of businesses with an investment in chocolate are central to improving its production: “From the Barry Callebaut Group to Mondelez to Mars, their industry and their profit depend on having something to produce, so in the long term, the hope is probably going to come in part from the private sector to self-govern and create rules to operate.”

These companies recognize that their bottom line will continue to be affected by rising temperatures from climate change and access to inexpensive labor, and so unsurprisingly, the biggest companies manufacturing chocolate have begun to set deadlines around reducing and eliminating their reliance on child labor.

“These companies don’t like to be boycotted on a college campus,” says Mendelson Forman.  

She says the first step to take in regards to buying ethically-sourced chocolate is to research which companies have pledged to end the use of child labor in their chocolate production. Investigating whether companies are using blockchain to trace their chocolate production is another good step, as it gives consumers the opportunity to know what they’re paying for and where the cacao within originated. As for small companies that use words like “artisanal” or “small batch” in their marketing, Mendelson Forman says it’s a free-for-all in terms of knowing if their chocolate is ethically sourced.    

“Anything that has ‘handcrafted’ components in the marketing makes it more dear, and therefore, makes people desire it.” says Mendelson Forman.