Chocolate economics

Chocolate economics

I don’t know many people who don’t like chocolate.  Hot, sweet, steamy cocoa or the creamy coffee-chocolate blend of a mocha can warm one’s heart on the coldest day.  A handful of M&M’s, the chocolate that melts in your mouth and not in your hand, can take care of that craving for something sweet in a minute.  Who among us doesn’t remember the anticipation of biting the ears off our first chocolate Easter bunny?

Scientifically, chocolate has been shown to contain chemicals that truly do make us feel better.  Not only can chocolate in moderate amounts alter our mood, but research repeatedly indicates that chocolate, especially the dark kind, is good for us.  Research shows that an ounce of dark chocolate a day may lower blood pressure.  Additionally, the antioxidants in dark chocolate seems to protect us from heart disease.

For those of us who love chocolate, this is really good news.  Chocolate can make us happy and healthier.  There seems to be no bad news, especially if we eat our favorite treat in moderation.

Unfortunately, the good news about chocolate doesn’t trickle down to the farmers who grow the cocoa beans.

Just as the prices for other raw commodities rise and fall, the price of raw chocolate rises and falls.  Lately, the price has fallen more than it has risen.  Even while M&M/Mars and Nestle–two companies which control most of the world’s chocolate processing and distribution–make record profits, cocoa farmers are paid amounts so low that some of them have abandoned their trees and gone to town looking for work.

Growing and harvesting cocoa is very labor intensive.  The places where the trees grow is not suited for mechanized weed control or tillage.  The pods grow high up on the trees and have to be cut down by hand with long handled machete’s.  Then the pods must be split open and the beans scooped out, fermented and dried.  More than 400 pods are needed to make a pound of cocoa.  As the price of raw chocolate falls, farmers are forced to make ends meet by finding cheap labor.  That cheap labor is often child labor.  Children are kept out of school to work and help support their families.  Sometimes the children are working for their own families, but often they are sent to work on large plantations with the hope they will be able to send their pay home.  Sometimes children are sold and taken far away to work.  It is estimated by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that in western Africa more than 12,500 children work on cocoa farms with no relatives in the area.

Children as young as 9 years old are forced to work twelve or more hours a day.  They are sent out to apply pesticides with no protective clothing.  They wield heavy, sharp machete’s.  They have no opportunity for education.  They have no way out of their poverty.

The world’s chocolate industry has made promises to change things, but have not followed through.  Instead, the organization’s representing the corporations profiting from our love for chocolate lay the responsibility for child labor at the feet of the cocoa farmers.  At the same time, these companies are making record profits by buying raw cocoa at prices below the cost of production.  The farmers are caught in the middle.

We can rationalize this kind of injustice by saying that at least these families have some income or that people in Africa where the cocoa is grown have a different attitude about their children’s need to support their family.  While both of these things might be partly true, I find it hard to imagine that any mother sends her child off to work far away instead of to school without feeling a great deal of grief.  I also have a hard time believing that these children are not terrorized by being separated from their parents, siblings and communities.

There are other ways for things like chocolate to be bought and sold.  Fair Trade cocoa and chocolate products are produced without child labor.  Fair Trade companies pay farmers a fair, stable price with a long-term contract.  Farmers are given access to capital and training to improve the quality of their cocoa.  Part of the profits are returned to the community to provide for education, health care and community development.

Of course, Fair Trade products are more expensive than a bag of M&M’s.  The quality is usually better.  More importantly, the aftertaste left by knowing that a child worked twelve or more hours a day far from his parents isn’t worth the cheaper price.  After all, chocolate isn’t something we need in large quantities.  Perhaps we can consider eating less of it and paying more for the fairly traded alternative.

If you want to know more about the issues surrounding chocolate and the positive impacts of Fair Trade, check out the web site of Global Exchange at  You will find information and links to other web sites to help you learn about how chocolate is grown and processed.  This web site lists brands and companies which sell Fair Trade certified products.  The Global Exchange web site also lists ways to encourage the world’s big chocolate companies like Nestle and M&M/Mars to guarantee that the cocoa they buy is not produced by the hands of children.

Make sure the chocolate you eat is not only good for your body, but is also good for your soul.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains