Economics News

Awash in the Politics of Chocolate

February 14, 2010
News & Advance columnist features upcoming Randolph College speaker

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The following story was published in the Lynchburg News & Advance Feb. 14, 2010. It is reprinted with permission.

By Darrell Laurant

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Central Virginia — like everywhere else in the U.S. — is no doubt awash in chocolate. Guys love to give boxes of candy to the women in their lives so they can eat half of it.

But do you know where your toffees, your nougats, your caramels, your chocolate-covered cherries came from before they melted in your mouth? I mean, besides from a box?

Greg Landua would love to tell you. Described as an “eco-social entrepreneur,” he’s speaking at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Room 315 of the Martin Science Building at Randolph College. His topic will be, “Regenerative Commerce: Healing the Planet and Her Peoples with Trade and Investment.”

It turns out that chocolate isn’t just tasty, but lucrative. It is at the heart of a complicated commercial, ecological and political landscape. And we don’t have any of it ourselves.

“Cacao is a tropical plant,” Landua said in a telephone conversation last week. “You could grow it in a greenhouse in the U.S., but it would cost too much to make that worthwhile.”

Therefore, most of our sweet Valentine’s Day morsels, not to mention candy bars and hot chocolate, come from countries Landua describes as “Economy Three.” That’s the latest euphemism for “Third World.”

The standard procedure is for a mega-corporation to subcontract to large growers in places like Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Nicaragua. These growers hire local people to harvest the cacao beans, thus keeping them one step removed from the profitable part of the operation.

At some point, in all the chocolate-growing regions of the world, smaller growers have decided to form cooperatives to compete with the mega-corporations. Which is fine, until it comes to getting that crop to the rest of the world. Then, often as not, they are once again steamrollered by the big boys who own the trains and trucks and ships.

Hence, the “Fair Trade” movement. This is partially about eliminating slave and child labor, keeping the price of commodities such as chocolate high enough to provide a living wage to small producers, and encouraging “sustainable” farming techniques. Perhaps more importantly from the farmers’ perspective, however, it also aims to hook them up with specific markets in the “Economy One” parts of the planet.

Landua, a native Alaskan with a Natural Geographic sort of background (according to a press release from Randolph, he has studied biology in the Galapagos Islands, translated for Amazonian rainforest guides and fought wildfires in his home state) is knee deep in an organization called “Booyacacao” which is not only involved in Fair Trade, but seeks to go “Beyond Fair Trade.”

“Beyond Fair Trade,” he explained, “is when you can pick up a product and have a connection with every aspect of how that product was grown.”

I found myself a little confused by this, because we don’t buy our Hershey bars and Whitman’s Samplers from the cacao equivalent of Juan Valdez, the Colombian coffee merchant. Unlike coffee, the biggest Fair Trade success story thus far, chocolate doesn’t arrive in our shores in Starbucks-sized bags, but 100-pound sacks of beans.

So as much as I’d love to buy my chocolate delights from some hard-working small farmer in Ghana, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Cacao has to be processed before it can be consumed, and that’s done here, and in Germany, and in Switzerland. Willy Wonka, I’m sad to say, never really existed.

Another problem is that most American consumers are very bottom-line conscious, almost to the point of exhibiting a split personality. It’s not unusual to find people who will passionately defend small farmers and local businesses, then snub their products for something cheaper from China.

Still, Greg Randua might be ahead of the curve. And what harm will it do to hear what he has to say?

Chances are your chocolate is probably all gone, anyway.

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