Darksides of chocolate

Darksides of chocolate

To survive here in Brussels and sustain my lifestyle and art practice, I am working as a tour guide showing tourists the best chocolate in world.

In my tour I ask my clients to be aware of two things. First, the price-taste-experience combination. When it comes to chocolate in the 60-80 euros per kilo range and even a baffling 104 euros a kilo, you'd better open your palate, eyes, nose and ears. Avant-garde chocolate is usually sold in very low-key shops (you-have-to-know-it-is-there kind of places) far away from the noisy and flashy environments of the mainstream brands. I don't think I should even mention their names, you'd most probably know them. Second, what we seek to do is go beyond the image that the chocolatiers give. Mainstream brands usually put a lot of effort in marketing and branding which results in an abundant product line-up and the use of low quality ingredients. In some shops, we are often after the "Made in Belgium tag" but the only one we can see is a best before tag. As you may now understand, beyond the image there is a whole host of opaque practices.

About two thirds of the current production come from Ghana and Ivory Coast where workers get very low income for harassing tasks whether in the fields or at the warehouse packing the final product : dried and fermented cocoa beans. I also got told they employ children. And farmers are under an increasing pressure to satisfy our insatiable appetite for chocolate. The land too is under pressure and doesn't yield as much as it used to be.

To worsen the situation, about 4 months ago I read two articles from Time and The Washington Post both highlighting chocolate deficits. The news was then confirmed by a TV report (Enquête sur l'autre or noir, le chocolat, Envoyé spécial, France 2, December 18th 2014). Here is an excerpt from The Washington Post:

"Last year, the world ate roughly 70,000 metric tons more cocoa than it produced. By 2020, the two chocolate-makers warn that that number could swell to 1 million metric tons, a more than 14-fold increase; by 2030, they think the deficit could reach 2 million metric tons." (1) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/11/15/the-worlds-biggest-chocolate-maker-says-were-running-out-of-chocolate/)

That is quite worrying. Are we past the peak cocoa too?

In the coming years, either chocolate becomes an extremely expensive treat or remains cheap but made of extremely low cocoa content (e.g. today Hershey's, Cadbury's nutrition facts situate fat+sugar around the 90% mark). Or a third option would be to buy chocolate futures and make a fortune! In a commodified world that is mostly how it goes, buying stocks that are just not there... Or you may want to anticipate and buy 2017 crops from Ghana based on climate projections.

Democracy is how we consume as Elise already argued. Chocolate is one irresistible treat and I am myself puzzled by such a news.

On the ethical side of things, cocoa deficits decrease the rigorous buy-local-attitude because most of the cocoa used to produce dark chocolate in Europe (or anywhere else in the world) have its origins in tropical countries where cocoa trees are grown. Therefore your 100g dark chocolate bar traveled far and wide before melting in your mouth. The Fair Trade logo ensures the farmers got a decent percentage off the product you buy but I wonder in what extent it prevents major companies from exploiting them. There's a thin line.

I do not wish to end on a sad note though. You should think of chocolate as a certain kind of technology, a result of progress and a know-how. Getting such a melting product took decades of trial and error across the 15 consecutive and necessary steps to produce chocolate. Back in the days, you would have cocoa powder mixed with milk to balance the bitterness out.

Chocolate is part of our collective history and should remain a part of it in the next decades. It is a matter of (1) slowing down your consumption of low quality cocoa products and therefore (2) what kind of chocolate business do you support, (3) being aware of where the beans come from, (3) being aware of where the chocolate itself was produced. Higher price tags (beyond the 70€/kg mark) mean a considerably richer chocolate experience : you need way less chocolate to get that typical satisfaction. It also means the products come in small batches and, last but least, imply a respect towards the people who do the hard work.

Let's celebrate that long heritage as well as remember what it takes to make the products we crave for.

- by Yogan Muller

(1) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/11/15/the-worlds-biggest-chocolate-maker-says-were-running-out-of-chocolate/