During our Virtual Tastings we’re often asked, “What about organic chocolate?”. It’s a great question, but answering it is complicated at best. Here’s why:
- Craft Chocolate is all about bars that taste better, are better for you, and better for farmers and for the planet.
- Organic food and farming have the same aspirations. Organic certification is all about avoiding artificial chemicals and environmentally destructive practises.
- Yet most craft chocolate isn’t organic.
As I said, it’s complicated! But let me explain, and I’ll also recommend some Craft Chocolate: some are organically certified, others are effectively organic, but all are great.
The Best Beans through Transparent Trade
You can only make the best craft chocolate when the cocoa beans are grown naturally, in the rainforests, without the harmful practices of mass production. This is where the Transparent Trade model comes in.
The maker works as closely as possible with the farmers and cooperatives growing their beans. They pay a premium for a long-term relationship that avoids damaging agricultural practices and harmful, artificial chemicals.
At Cocoa Runners, we only sell bars when we know both the way the bar is crafted and the source of its beans.
We have met, mainly in person and at a minimum through video, all 100+ makers we directly purchase from. We have visited and spoken to many of the 70+ farmers and cooperatives where most of our makers source their beans.
Indeed, we often find new craft chocolate makers thanks to many of these growers, who recommend to us other makers buying their beans.
Organic and Craft Chocolate
However, overall sales of organic chocolate is still incredibly niche — less than 0.5% of total chocolate sales and even less of world cocoa harvested. Meanwhile, organic fruit and vegetable sales in the US account for around 5% of total sales.
Almost all organic chocolate is “mass produced” to have a bland, uniform taste. It will often have added artificial flavourings like vanillin, and makers will use couverture (pre-processed chocolate) rather than making directly from the bean.
In contrast, craft chocolate is all about coaxing different flavours out of different beans, terroirs, vintages, fermentations and working directly with the farmers.
Some of our makers are certified Organic: some of these only sell organic bars (like Original Beans and Taza) while others sell both organic and non-organic bars (like Conexion and Georgia Ramon).
Even then, most craft chocolate makers and heirloom cocoa growers are not organic certified. The cost of organic certification is often too expensive for smaller producers, and there are many other prohibiting factors.
On the Farm…
Organic certification was originally developed for products that could be grown large-scale like bananas. But whereas bananas are largely farmed on big plantations at scale, cocoa – especially heirloom cocoa – is usually grown by farmers with less than 5 hectares of cocoa trees.
These cocoa farmers usually lack the budget and economics to afford certification. The potential cost of organic certification is literally more than their annual income.
Some innovative ways have been found to overcome this problem of affordability and scale. In Peru, the indigenous Asháninka people have secured funding for organic certification for a large swathe of cocoa farms via the Kemito Ene and Rainforest UK NGOs.
There are also cocoa farmers who are effectively organic, but just without the certification. The folks at Askinosie ask all the cocoa farmers they work with to sign a contract promising to adhere to “organic-like” practices, and they regularly visits the farms to oversee this.
But they don’t force the farmers to pay for organic certification. So, while the farmers may be following organic-like practices, they are not technically certified as organic farmers.
In the Supermarkets…
Countries like Germany and Denmark (the biggest European markets for organic goods) have dedicated organic stores where customers readily support organic products. Organic certification has business benefits for local makers like Georgia Ramon and Original Beans – there are already consumers willing to buy organic chocolate.
Organic sales in the UK still lag, however. There are few organic retailers, and the organic message is clouded by many supermarkets having their own certification schemes. The marketing strategies of big brands and retailers train consumers to expect an offer on chocolate bars, or to grab a quick snack from checkout aisles, endcaps, and vending machines.
It’s a vicious cycle for organic craft chocolate. Customers can’t find craft chocolate in the vast majority of UK organic retailers.
Even if you do visit the organic supermarkets, you won’t find an Original Beans chocolate bar – £3.95 is “too expensive” despite winning ‘Organic Chocolate Maker of the Year’ multiple years in a row.
You can’t easily pick up and try a craft chocolate bar while shopping, and so you think that chocolate is all about added flavours and simple percentages. Customers carry on seeing chocolate as a cheap, mass-produced snack.
How can we fix this?
Craft chocolate has an ethos and set of objectives that have much in common with the organic movement. Both strive to grow and offer products that taste better, are better for you, better for farmers and better for the planet.
But in many cases craft chocolate makers and craft chocolate farmers aren’t at a scale to afford organic certification. And the answer isn’t to try and simply “scale up”. Nor is it to focus on yet another certification or label.
The packaging for bars already has all you need to know. Just read the label.
We need to stop regarding chocolate bars as a commodity snack where it’s all about paying the lowest price. Then we can stay true to, but also go beyond, simple organic certification. We have to go beyond the “2 for £2” offer for bars (even if they are “organic”). And if you do pay £3.95 or more for a GREAT craft chocolate bar, you really can taste the difference. More importantly, the bar will be better for you and better for the farmers and the planet.