Chocolate in Berlin – some thoughts on the World Cocoa Conference 2018

By Spencer Hyman  ·  1st May 2018  ·  Uncategorized

Last weekend I was invited to the World Cocoa Conference in Berlin to speak at one of the “warm up” sessions of the Fine and Flavour Forum.  So first and foremost, I’d like to thank Martin Christy for inviting me, and congratulations to Martin and Maricel for arranging a raft of great speakers and topics on Sunday.

Having said this, my overall impression for the World Cocoa Conference was one of bemusement and concern.  I was expecting delegates to have passion and enthusiasm for our “product” (i.e. chocolate, food of the goods).  And I was hoping to taste lots of chocolate.  I did taste a couple of great chocolates (spoiler alert Fu Wan’s new tea infused bars are awesome), and I did manage to listen to (and even speak with) a few forward thinking individuals (thanks Carla for the intro to Volta’s Anthony Rue, good to finally meet Nick Weatherill of ICI, and I enjoyed meeting Starbucks people too).  But there was hardly any chocolate to taste (two small bits of milka in the delegate bag) and my overall impression was that at best most delegates didn’t really take pride in, believe in, or aspire to create (or taste) great chocolate (hint – take a look at the tag line on the delegate bag below from BASF – “we create chemistry”).  Delegates and participants all too often seemed overwhelmed by the problems of their world and industry – deforestation, climate change, poverty, child labour, blight, consumer mistrust, health concerns, to just name a few.  Unlike attending speciality coffee fairs, wine shows, craft beer shows or even craft chocolate shows there was no sense of passion, pride or purpose.

My panel, made up of Jorge Redman, Mikkel Friis Holm Luis Mancini and me, was on lessons Chocolate can learn from Speciality Coffee.  We all agreed on many similarities – Mikkel focused on the importance of taste and consistency and Luis did a great job of noting the similarities of farmers and craft makers working together with both beans.  We also acknowledged the huge boost that speciality coffee stores and baristas have had in promoting speciality coffee.  We were all envious of the relative ease by which consumers can “upgrade” their daily habits of making morning coffee and visiting better coffee stores.  By contrast craft chocolate isn’t an easy substitute for the mid-afternoon sugar rush realised with supermarket bars.  We were optimistic on how craft chocolate can work with speciality coffee stores to sell bars and better drinking chocolate.  But with hindsight what I wished I’d said (or rather shouted) was something along the lines of “come on guys, wake up smell the coffee” – look at what the (speciality) coffee industry has done for consumers, farmers and themselves over the last decade.  Sure speciality coffee may only be 8-15% of coffee sales – and craft chocolate is still less than 1% (definitions and statistics are slippery, but these seem “directionally accurate”).  My impression of folks within both the mass and speciality ends of the coffee industry is that they have a sense of purpose and pride for their product and industry.  They believe coffee can (and should) taste great.  They can get customers to appreciate and enjoy coffee.  They can improve some farmers lives.  They can and should plant forests, work with local governments and associations.  This is in marked contrast to Big Chocolate.

Unfortunately, I only was able to stay for Monday, and so I only heard the keynote speeches and some sessions on deforestation and sustainability.  But what I learnt was pretty dispiriting.  I’m not sure that this was the intention of the conference, but I came with the clear message that if you eat cheap chocolate and confectionery, or consume cheap chocolate as an ingredient in cakes, biscuits, you are

  1. Encouraging massive deforestation (rainforest canopy in the Cote D’Ivoire down from 24% to less than 4% in the last couple of decades, and cocoa the number 1 culprit; see http://www.mightyearth.org/chocolatesdarksecret/)
  2. Contributing to climate change on a global and local level (Mighty Earth has some powerful analysis showing how deforestation in Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Peru and Ecuador are playing havoc with local weather and water)
  3. The end point of a supply chain that pays farmers less than half of what they need to live, beggars their families and gives them very little hope (although it’s better to be in Ghana or Cote D’Ivoire than war torn Liberia).

More worryingly no one was proposing any viable solutions.  There was an appeal to “cathedral thinking” (i.e. thinking of the future for your grandchildren) and a truly bizarre story from a Canadian guest speaker about New College, Oxford planting a forest in 1378 so that when the college hall (sic) was rebuilt in the 1970s they could harvest some trees planted in 1378 by the great, great grandparents of the current new college forester (I’m not making this up).  There was some talk of “responsible partnerships” and Simran Sethi showed what can be done by the likes of Tony Chocolonely in the world of sustainable production.  But much of the time I had to pinch myself when I heard more and more appeals to government, and in particular the EU, to “do something”.  There were lots of interesting statistics – and the chart from the ICCO showing that whilst the world weighted price of 1 KG of chocolate has held constant or even marginally increased from $14.22 to $14.7 between 2013 and 2017, the price of 1KG of cocoa beans (nearby futures contract New York) has decreased from $3.20 to $2.04, pretty much summed up the challenge. For Big Chocolate,  chocolate / cocoa is a commodity product and Big Chocolate isn’t interested in fine flavour or taste.

Unlike other commodity products such as, for example oil, governments, farmers and traders in cocoa growing countries find it really hard to co-ordinate on a local or international level.  Despite two countries controlling 65% plus of world cocoa (Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana), their governments are not incentivised and indeed often relatively powerless to impact prices. The majority of the cocoa growing comprises a myriad of small cocoa farmers, traders, loan sharks, etc. who operate on the edges, and often outside, the law (check out all the cocoa being farmed illegally in national parks).  I’m no expert here, but I can sympathise with the argument that it’s far easier to e.g., monitor sweatshops producing garments than certify these supply chains.  It can be done in chocolate.  Divine have done this in Ghana, Ritter explained what they are doing, and there are lots of initiatives in Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, etc. and NGOs like the ICC who have laudable plans.  And coffee shows that there are alternatives to OPEC like structures.

But as long as the priority of Big Chocolate is to purchase cocoa as cheaply as they can, and for as long as the people they buy from are so fragmented and so desperate, it’s hard to see how things are going to change.  Many (most?) cocoa farmers in West Africa make less than a dollar a day (the UN believes the minimum living income is $2.50).  And despite these low wages and incomes, people are still desperate for any work – there are stories of workers literally swimming through crocodile infested rivers and shark infested seas to work on illegal cocoa plantations for these wages in deplorable conditions.  So even though it’s great to hear that “Big Chocolate” is trying to create “traceable supply chains”, “sustainable farms”, etc. we’ve heard this many times before and I’m not optimistic.  For as long as they see cocoa as an ingredient where Big Chocolate companies and Traders believe their shareholder obligations mean they need to beat prices down as low as they can, it’s hard to imagine them creating a “Bournville” or “Hershey Town” in Africa.  At the moment, demand for cocoa is pretty flat … but poverty struck farmers see no option but to produce more cocoa. Intriguingly, or rather more worryingly, the ICCO seems to realise that pressuring Big Chocolate hasn’t, and may well not, work (see their summary document from the conference – https://www.icco.org/about-us/icco-news/387-berlin-declaration-of-the-fourth-world-cocoa-conference.html )

So instead the ICCO is now arguing that governments, and in particular the EU, “take action”. One keynote speaker even argued that because government taxes took up 15% of the $100bn spent on chocolate globally, governments should use this to subsidise farmers wages and pay more for cocoa beans (I may have misunderstood this … but checking with a few others in the audience, this was their impression too).  Mighty Earth made a similar plea for the EU “to get involved” and “take action” (everyone did seem to realise that Trump wasn’t as obvious a lobbying target).

I was initially sceptical of the power of the EU “to get involved” and “take action” until I did a little more research on an issue raised in one session on Sunday – Cadmium.  I’m still researching this – and would love to hear from anyone who can shine more light on the subject.  I came away from the conference really worried about prospects for Peruvian, Columbian and Ecuadorean chocolate in the EU.  From the 1st Jan 2019, the EU is bringing into force new guidelines on the maximum amount of cadmium many products can contain.  And chocolate is a special case.  https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/chemical_safety/contaminants/catalogue/cadmium_en

Here is what I’ve gleaned

  • Cadmium is really, really not got news for humans (causes kidney failure, is carcinogenic, etc.)
  • According to EU studies, we are already eating too many foods with too much cadmium (especially if you are a vegetarian smoker (read the above article!)
  • So the EU want to limit the amount of cadmium in lots of products, and in particular chocolate (I’m not sure why chocolate has been singled out – and if anyone can advise, I’d love to hear). From Jan 1, 2019 new “maximum” limits for chocolate bars are being imposed … which are very low, and sound very problematic for quite a few regions
  • Some countries’ soils contain lots of cadmium and this can pass into the cocoa harvested – and in particular Peru, Ecuador and Columbia seem to be exposed. Other countries’ soils contain far less cadmium and aren’t at risk (Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, etc.).  Worryingly cadmium is also “highly localised” so it can be in a corner of one field and not the rest.  It can be in one part of the valley but not the other.  The good news is that the soils and cacao trees can be treated.  But given how hard it can be to get farmers to prune trees, and given how they mix batches during fermentation, treatment is going to be very tough

In the US there were similar efforts to label, and put limits on, cadmium in chocolate – especially in California.  However, these initiatives appear to have been met with some labelling compromises and “further studies”.  The Peruvian, Ecuadorean and Columbian governments are all making desperate lobbying efforts to stall the EU’s plans.  But there isn’t a lot of time left, and a lot of Ecuadorean, Peruvian and Colombian cocoa farmers and makers are about to get thrown under the bus.

I’m very grateful for the chance to attend the conference.  And as I said at the outset, I wish I’d taken my chance to rant during my speech and have participants from Big Chocolate taste some really great craft chocolate that Martin’s International Chocolate Awards, the AOC and indeed our monthly subscription boxes celebrate.  But hindsight is frequently 20:20.   Next time!

Looking forward, I’ve come back worried about the potentially disaster that EU Cadmium regulations will have for many Peruvian, Colombian and Ecuadorean farmers and makers without anyone really noticing (as a side note, it’ll be interesting to see how “raw” chocolate handles this given that so much of the liquor from which it is processed comes from Ecuatoriana, a single large Ecuadorian factory.  Perhaps “raw” consumers will now examine these raw bars, and the fiction of raw chocolate’s health benefits, a little more).  At a minimum it’d be good to have more time for cocoa growers and farmers to work out how to test for cadmium.

Above all I’ve come back even more unimpressed by “Big Chocolate”.  Big chocolate is bad for the farmers, bad for local forests and bad for the planet. Consumers – correctly – are mistrustful of Big Chocolate and their processes.  And Big Chocolate knows this – and I’m really not surprised why Big Chocolate is so embarrassed and why it has no pride, passion and plans for Theobroma Cacao, the fruit of the gods.  There is almost a case to be made for a cocoa blight, like Witches Broom, to strike and help raise prices through a shortage – and force big chocolate to think more long term, force a restructuring of the industry etc.  But short term this would be terrible for the already beleaguered farmers and their families in West Africa.

Instead, I think we have to learn more from, and follow in the footsteps of, speciality coffee, artisanal cheese, and craft beer.  In the UK more is spent buying chocolate than purchasing either books or music. But this chocolate expenditure isn’t, yet, the subject of much enthusiasm; Big Chocolate is unsurprisingly reticent of its supply chain and processes.  By contrast, craft chocolate lovers and makers are enthusiasts.  We celebrate the cocoa bean and the bars craft chocolate makers create.  We know craft chocolate tastes better (a LOT better).  We know craft chocolate is better for you (has less additives, you’ll savour it more and scoff less – so hopefully eat less of it, etc.).  And direct trade is clearly far better for farmers and the planet.  We know just have to persuade more and more consumers, and who knows even some members of “Big Chocolate”, to try craft chocolate and pick up our passion, purpose and pride.  To that end, we’re working to create some Craft Chocolate Fairs – the first at Kings Cross Canopy Market over the weekend of May 11-13th, and then another at Square Mile Coffee Roasters from October 19-21st.  For more details see cocoarunners.com/events/ – and hope to see you there!