August 11, 2022

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Chocolate: The dark side of its production

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The chocolate industry is under pressure to address ethical and sustainability issues.

Chocolate is probably the most popular candy in the world.

It seems few can resist this delicacy – we consume more than 7 million tonnes of it a year. This represents almost one kilogram for every inhabitant of the planet.

As several documentaries have pointed out, including The Dark Side of Chocolate (2010), this appetite has serious side effects.

The chocolate industry has long been under pressure to address ethical and sustainability issues such as deforestation and the use of child labor to harvest cocoa.

But how does the industry deal with these issues that cast a long shadow over such a lucrative business?

Sustainability: Where does chocolate come from?

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Cocoa, the raw material of chocolate, grows only in certain climatic conditions.

One of the major problems in the chocolate industry is the scarcity of cocoa beans, the raw material for chocolate.

Cacao trees are very sensitive and require rain and high temperatures to grow, as well as covering the trees to protect them from light and wind. This is why only some countries offer these conditions.

Two West African countries – Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – account for nearly 52% of cocoa beans harvested globally, according to data from FAO, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Other countries in the region such as Nigeria and Cameroon help bring Africa’s share to nearly 69%.

Climate change and deforestation

Climate change is a major concern as it is expected to increase temperatures and droughts in West Africa, which is bad news for cocoa farmers.

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Deforestation and cocoa farming often go hand in hand

Environmentalists say cocoa farming is one of the main culprits behind the rate of deforestation in Ivory Coast. According to World Bank data, the country has lost 80% of its forests in the last 50 years. It has one of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet.

And the forest is still under threat. American environmental group Mighty Earth, which maps deforestation using satellite data, says the African country lost 470 km² of forest in 2020 alone.

But deforestation is strongly linked to climate change, which threatens the livelihoods of these same farmers in the long term.

Michael Otji, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom and an expert on the cocoa industry in Africa, believes this vicious circle is due to simple economic considerations.

“Cacao cultivation has a huge environmental cost. Unfortunately, this is likely to continue because the cost of cocoa production in the forest zone (virgin forest) is lower than in the fields. [du cacao] Too little for sustainable production,” OTG told the BBC.

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But industry insiders say it is taking steps to correct its actions.

US confectionary Mars, the world’s biggest chocolate seller, tells the BBC it has implemented measures to make its cocoa supply chain more sustainable, including ensuring cocoa is completely “deforested” by 2025.

“Illegal cocoa has no place in the Martian supply chain,” he said in a statement.

Exploitation of children

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Child labor is a common practice in cocoa farming.

There is evidence of children (and adults) being used in forced labor conditions in cocoa farming.

As early as 1998, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported that children from neighboring countries were being systematically trafficked to Côte d’Ivoire to work on cocoa plantations.

According to UK-based NGO Anti-Slavery International, the practice continues.

“It is estimated that at least 30,000 adults and children work in the cocoa industry worldwide,” Jessica Turner, spokeswoman for Anti-Slavery International, told the BBC.

But the widespread use of child labor is another matter. The term, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), refers to work that “deprives children of their childhood” – including preventing schooling and providing harmful or dangerous conditions.

In 2020, a study conducted by the University of Chicago in the US found that two out of five children living in cocoa-growing areas in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana were classified as hazardous work – activities such as using sharp tools, working at night. or exposure to chemicals used in agriculture.

The chocolate industry has committed since 2001 to ending child labor in cocoa production under an international agreement known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

But it missed a deadline to reduce child labor in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana by 70% by 2020.

The World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), the umbrella organization of the world’s largest chocolate companies, has acknowledged the problem of child labor, with 1.6 million children working in cocoa farming in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana alone.

The organization also says it is committed to “eradicating child labor in cocoa” by increasing investment in social development programs aimed at tackling the problem – and says that in 2019 alone, the amount allocated to these programs was higher than in all of 2001. -2018.

The BBC contacted the WCF for comment on the issue, but a response was not received by the time this report was published.

Are we paying a fair price for the chocolate we eat?

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Even some representatives of the chocolate industry say that we are not paying a fair price for this delicacy.

Not according to activists and some chocolate industry voices.

Germany-based Incota, which runs the “Make Chocolate Fair” awareness campaign, says the prices paid to cocoa farmers fuel the problems facing the chocolate industry.

“Cocoa farmers live in deep poverty, and this is directly linked to issues like child labor and deforestation,” Evelyn Pan, a human rights adviser at Incota, told the BBC.

Fair trade experts estimate that in 2020, the average cocoa farmer earned only US$0.90 (581 FCFA) per day, below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line (1,227 FCFA).

“Poverty and all the work practices that come with it are the main reasons for low prices for cocoa farmers,” says Michael Otji.

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Cocoa farmers and plantation workers earn less than a dollar a day on average.

Activists such as Incota and the Fairtrade Foundation believe the market price for cocoa beans should be increased to remedy the situation, and some chocolate companies have publicly promised to pay farmers more.

This is the case with Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch company that started as an activist platform against forced labor in the chocolate industry and is now the country’s best-selling chocolate brand.

“The only reason we exist is to make chocolate free of child labor and slavery. And to pay a fair price. [pour le cacao] is an important principle,” the firm’s UK managing director Ben Greensmith told the BBC.

That doesn’t mean customers will pay significantly more for this delicious food.

Incoda estimates that if cocoa farmers receive a living wage for their production, the price of a 100g chocolate bar will increase to less than US$0.20 (129 FCFA).

“It’s not a huge increase, and it will make a huge difference in the lives of cocoa farmers,” Pan argues.