Chocolate – dream or nightmare
Probably no food other than chocolate is as controversial, challenging and consequential. Ever since humans began to drink cocoa in the early days of Mayan society, there have been claims made for its health benefits. These many beneficial claims continue today, usually based on research funded by large chocolate companies.[i] After consulting with several food and nutrition researchers, Petrow concluded that we need to “stop thinking of chocolate as healthy.” If we choose to eat chocolate, dark chocolate is a better choice but even it should be thought of as a treat and not a health food.
The vast distance that Carol Off illuminated between grower and consumer of cocoa is a persistent challenge. The vast distance is geographical and the conditions for cocoa farmers remain challenging. Mufson reported on Mars Wrigley Company’s goal to become more sustainable and transparent in their supply chain, a target they still cite as a major trend in 2020 (mars.com). They state that the persistent questions from consumers are: what’s in my food and where is it from? Attention to these questions led Mars Wrigley to commit to totally sustainable producers by 2020 but had to revise that target date to 2025. They worked with Rainforest Alliance whose certification program should assure that cocoa came from farms that did not use child labour, harm wildlife or chop down trees. However despite the certification program, the supply chain was still vulnerable to the entrance of uncertified products.
The supply chain for cocoa is multi layered. Small farmers are the growers who sell to middlemen who transport and sell bags of beans to co-operatives. The co-operatives then sell to large international trading houses such as Olam, Cargill and Barry Callebaut who then sell to small chocolate manufacturers and large companies such as Mars Wrigley.[ii] The reality for farmers is that their annual income is still very low and so they are pressured to increase their productive acreage by clearing more and more land and growing on protected forests and national parks. Mufson quotes Eric Agnero, an environmental activist in Abidijan, the capital of Ivory Coast, “Anytime someone bites on a chocolate bar in the United States, a tree is being cut down.” So while North American consumers may be questioning more where our food comes from and chocolate companies may be trying to do sustainable sourcing, the conditions of production are difficult to change. The multi layered supply chain is vulnerable and national poverty and politics are intervening conditions.
In the past ten years as British Columbia consumers have persisted in asking where our food comes from and the conditions under which it is grown, many family owned small batch chocolate manufacturers have opened across the province. These small batch manufacturers are also referred to as artisan or bean to bar chocolate makers. Many attempt to reduce the levels of the supply chain by buying directly from growers and their sales rely on online marketing. Teresa Bergen reported on five artisan chocolatiers.[iii] Sirene Chocolate in Victoria opened in 2014 and sells in stores as well as online.[iv] Take a Fancy Bean to Bar Chocolate started production a little over 10 years ago in Robert’s Creek and sales at farmers and artisan markets.[v] East Van Roasters opened in 2013 and employs mainly women struggling with financial and addiction problems.[vi] Wild Sweets is a Richmond based company also sales at artisan and farmers markets and are noted for their sculptured chocolate shapes and unique decorations.[vii] Beanpod’s is located in Fernie and emphasizes making chocolate “the traditional way”.[viii] Most of the artisan producers take pride in direct and fair sourcing and the process they use in making small batch chocolate. Their websites provide lots of information and further reading.
Vancouver appears to have almost as many artisan chocolate manufacturers as coffee roasters. Charlie’s Chocolate Factory in Burnaby has been producing chocolate since 1970. They use Callebaut chocolate and they emphasize quality products, affordable prices and happy customers.[ix] Coconama located in North Vancouver opened in 2010 and has a motto of connecting people with chocolate and turns out chocolates with a Japanese twist.[x] There is also Thomas Haas, Gem Chocolates, and Beta 5 among many others to check out. A visit to the Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival website lists many other chocolate shops to explore (https://hotchocolatefest.com/list-of-flavours)
We in British Columbia have an amazing array of chocolate manufacturers and vendors from which to choose when we want a treat or choose to gift the special people in our lives this month. When we buy chocolate we are participating in an industry that has consequences in the lives of people half way around the globe. Do we buy organic, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance certified? Its an industry with a fascinating history in British Columbia and beyond and worthy of careful consideration and continual scrutiny because of the environmental and social justice consequences of our decisions.
[i] Petrow, Steven “Dark Chocolate” Vancouver Sun, November 9, 2019, p. F5.
[ii] Mufson, Steven “Sweet Nothings” Vancouver Sun, November 9, 2019, p. E1.