We’re used to paying about $1 for a bar of chocolate. But that price undercuts the farmer, the flavor, and the finesse that it takes to make good chocolate. To understand why many craft chocolate makers have adopted the direct-trade model — and higher prices — let’s look at how Big Chocolate works with farmers.
Chocolate has a sordid past and present, full of human rights violations like slavery, indentured servitude, and abject poverty. As Europeans developed a taste for chocolate back in the day, and industrialization made it easy to produce chocolate by the ton, millions of Africans were enslaved to work cacao farms in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean and Africa. For example, on the West African island of Sao Tomé in the nineteenth century, more than 100,000 Africans labored on cacao plantations; though slavery was formally abolished in 1876, their descendants worked as de facto slaves until 1975, when the island gained independence from Portugal.
Today about 70 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, mostly Ghana and Ivory Coast, here human rights abuses still run rampant. A BBC documentary in 2000 exposed egregious human rights abuses on Ivory Coast cacao plantations. Recently the media has focused on the most blatant problem: child labor and slavery. “They are enjoying something that I suffered to make,” a little boy who had been farming cacao since he was five years old told the camera when asked what he thought about people gobbling chocolate in the rest of the world. “They are eating my flesh.”
Big brands like Nestlé, Mondelēz, and Hershey have introduced programs to help improve farmers’ lives and reduce child labor, and they have banded together to form CocoaAction, a group dedicated to improving productivity, sustainability, and community development through training programs. And they’re working to meet US lawmakers’ requirements to reduce child labor in West Africa by 70 percent by 2020. Yet despite industry attempts at reform, the problem has only gotten worse, with a 21 percent increase in child labor in cacao production between 2009 and 2014.
But the issue is complicated. Focusing on child labor and slavery alone will not fix the underlying problems. Whether or not the many children working on cacao plantations are outright slaves, they may have no other choice but to work alongside the rest of their family on farms, all using machetes to harvest and crack pods — something that’s risky even for adults — to survive. The hard truth is, many African cacao farmers are subsistence farmers living in extreme poverty. In Tanzania, for example, almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.
This kind of poverty is unacceptable no matter what, but it is especially alarming when we take into account the fact that demand for chocolate is growing and the price of beans is rising. Despite the increasing demand, farmers are being paid less: in the 1980s they received 16 percent of the retail price of chocolate, but now they receive only 3 to 6 percent. In 2016 a California district court dismissed lawsuits accusing Nestlé and Hershey of neglecting to disclose that the cocoa in some of their brands could have come from slave labor; the judge said it wasn’t for the courts to decide. Big Chocolate is getting rich off this poverty and these problems: Nestlé alone — one company — made $100 billion in sales in 2015, while Ivory Coast and Ghana combined — two entire countries — have a GDP of around $73 billion. All of this in the name of $1 chocolate.
Most of the cocoa that bean-to-bar makers use doesn’t come from Africa. They mainly source from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, areas that historically have higher quality types of cocoa and higher standards of living. But that doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory there. The issues aren’t quite as severe as child slavery in Africa, but cacao farmers everywhere often struggle. One of the biggest problems? They don’t always get paid for their beans.
So how much should you pay for a bar of chocolate?
Most bean-to-bar chocolate bars these days retail between $8 and $14. Occasionally you’ll find some priced lower than this, and often you’ll find some priced higher. For example, an Ecuadorian company called To’ak (run by Americans) has released bars that retail for around $300 — and come in a special wooden box with tweezers to allow you to delicately sniff the chocolate’s aroma without soiling the square with your fingers.
Still, $14 can still seem like a big investment. However, I’d say that’s a pretty low price point to buy the best food of its kind in the world. The best wines retail for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. Caviar? Forget about it. Spending an average of $10 on a bar that I’ll taste over the course of several days or a week seems well worth it to me.
Excerpted from Bean to Bar: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution by Megan Giller, out now.