Products containing cocoa such as chocolate are regularly consumed by many people nowadays and some people even eat them daily. While cocoa used to be a luxury product, today that’s no longer the case and production has increased dramatically. Since the ’60s the demand for cocoa has trippled and in the last twenty years it has increased by 91%. The overwhelming majority of cocoa is produced in West Africa, about 70 percent of all cocoa. For many countries such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Sierra Leone, cocoa is the most important export product and millions of people work to produce it. Since the ’90s the production of cocoa in Africa has even increased by 894 percent.
The cocoa cultivation in South America and Asia has also increased in recent years. In Asia, cocoa production has increased by 337 percent since the ’90s. Latin America is the region where cocoa originates from. In many South American countries there are huge cocoa plantations and many of these countries also depend largely on the export cocoa for foreign currency.
The processing of cocoa mostly happens in the EU and North America, where cocoa is made into chocolate and other products. For example, the port of Amsterdam imports about 20 percent of the cocoa produced worldwide every year.
Cocoa may be really delicious, its production causes a lot of suffering. Slavery and child labour are very common. Workers are also exploited in other ways and are often forced to work with dangerous chemicals. This also means that the production of cocoa is not very environmentally friendly. In this blog we discuss the downsides of cocoa production.
15 years ago there was a lot of media attention for the fact that slaves are widely used to produce cocoa. Several documentaries were made and there was a public outcry when it was reported in the news. The brad Tony’s Chocolonely was made to try to produce slave-free chocolate. While almost everyone claims to be opposed to slavery, this does not seem to stop them from buying chocolate. Governments and organisations like the Fair Labour Association and International Cocoa Initiative work together to try and stop slavery in the cocoa industry.
Now, 15 years later, slavery is still a huge problem in the cocoa industry and it seems all the attempts to solve this have not made any progress. The use of child labour has even increased. Tony’s Chocolonely has admitted that they have not reached their goal and that even they can’t guarantee that their chocolate is 100% slave-free. According to their own research, there are more than 90.000 slaves used in cocoa production in Ghana and Ivory Coast alone, of which the majority are children.
As the world market for cocoa is dominated by a few big companies such as Mars and Nestlé, it is better for them to keep the cocoa price low. This puts a lot of pressure on cocoa farmers. They often don’t have any other choice than to use slaves to work for them, as they don’t earn enough to use paid labour. These children are taken from their families, don’t go to school and are forced to pick cocoa beans. They’re send ito the woods with machetes and forced to climb trees to get to the cocoa beans. In exchange, they often don’t receive any compensation or only a very small sum of money.
Certified cocoa is no guarantee that it’s slave-free. Most certified cocoa, such as Fairtrade and UTZ Certified, consist of a mix of different types of cocoa, as it’s pretty much impossible to keep cocoa seperate. That is why certified cocoa is a mixture of slave-free cocoa and cocoa that was produced by slaves. Cocoa without any certification usually certainly contains cocoa harvested with slave labour. Even for companies such as Tony’s Chocolonely, it is impossible to produce 100% slave-free chocolate. It is pretty much impossible for companies to trace the origin of all their cocoa and even when they can trace it, it’s no guarantee that slaves aren’t used. After all, it’s impossible to check the labourers of millions of farmers.
Child labour and exploitation
Even when slaves aren’t used, that doesn’t mean that cocoa is then produced in an ethical way. For example, child labour is also a big problem. According to research by Tony’s Chocolonely, there are at least 2,1 million children illegally working for the cocoa industry in Ghana and Ivory Coast alone. This often happens in small family farms, where children work up to 50 hours a week.
In addition, labourers often get paid very little and family members are often forced to do unpaid labour. Workers for Nestlé are allowed to work up to 60 hours a week, but certain times of the year they are known to work even more hours than that. Accidents occur frequently and there is often little help for the victims. A research by the FLA showed that 72 percent of the accidents was caused by the use of machetes.
Farmers with the Fairtrade certificate often get paid a bit more. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to get this certificate if you’re a poor farmer. There are many requirements a farmer has to meet before being able to get a certificate and they often have to guarantee a minimum amount of produced cocoa. That’s why only richer farmers with more land are able to get such a certificate. Sometimes small farmers can get a certificate by working together under a richer farmer, but then they often still don’t profit from it due to mismanagement and fraud.
Dangerous and unhealthy work
While slavery does not seem to be common in South America, the cocoa production there still causes a lot of human suffering. Cocoa is mostly produced on huge plantations there. For example, in Brazil, only 19 percent of cocoa is produced by small farmers. There is also a lot of poverty among farmers and it is often dangerous work. A lot of dangerous chemicals are used as pesticides and herbicides, often substances that are forbidden in the EU and the United States because they are so dangerous. Both on big plantations and among small farmers, the people who work with these chemicals often don’t have any knowledge of how to use them properly and how dangerous they are. Most labourers are illiterate so they can’t read the information on the bottles. In addition, they usually don’t get protective clothing, which causes them to breath in the toxic substances and often have dangerous chemicals fall on their skin. Poison related health problems, such as throat and lung problems, skin irritations, coughing up blood, headaches, heartproblems, eyeproblems and aplastic anemia are all very common. A survey in 1987 revealed that 77 percent of cocoa workers had symptoms related to poisoning.
While lots of cocoa farmers and labourers are already having a hard time, it’s likely the situation is only going to get worse for them. There are already problems with older plantations, as older trees produce less cocoa after a while. In addition, it’becoming increasingly hard for small farmers to live off cocoa production, as the price of cocoa is very low and the price for fertilizer and tools are often very high. It’s also very difficult for small farmers to get help or technical knowledge about how to work more efficient.
Climate change is also likely to make things worse for people in the cocoa industry. While it is difficult to guess how the weather is going to change and how this will effect cocoa production, the effect is likely to be negative. Big parts of West Africa have a long dry season. Experts estimate that climate change will only lengthen these dry seasons, making certain areas no longer suitable for cocoa production. While researchers have come up with solutions to these problems, it is doubtful that these useful suggestions will actually reach the farmers and that they will have the means to put those suggestions into practice.
Impact on the environment
Cocoa products are also not very environmentally friendly, especially the cultivation of cocoa and the processing of cocoa in factories. Some of the problems are resource depletion, high energy usage, eutrophication and photochemical oxidation. In addition, the transportation and packaging of the cocoa beans also contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gasses. The transportation alone causes the emission of 0,22 to 0,39 kg CO2eq. per kilo of cocoa beans. The packaging is responsible for 0,28 to 1,91 kg CO2eq per kilo of cocoa beans.
Another problem is that the increasing demand for cocoa products has led to a lot of deforestation in rainforest areas. Especially in West Africa this is a problem, where a lot of protected rain forests are illegally cut down for this purpose. This is not only bad for the environment, but also for the endangered species living there. Between November 2017 and November 2018, 13.700 hectares of rainforest in Ivory Coast were destroyed to make space for new cocoa plantations. This happened despite the fact that all the big cocoaproducers and processors and the governments of countries such as Ivory Coast and Ghana had agreed to stop this deforestation.
The usage of dangerous pesticides is not only bad for the people working with them, but also for the environment and the health of consumers. While it is checked that cocoa does not contain too many harmful substances, small amounts of pesticides and chemicals are allowed. Another health problem can be the heavy metals in cocoa, especially cadmium. In 2014 the EU has set a maximum amount of cadmium allowed in cocoa, as too much cadmium can lead to kidney stones, other kidney problems and all sorts of other health problems. Especially in cocoa from South America high amounts of cadmium are regularly found, even in organic cocoa. A research checking the cadmium amounts of different cocoa beans showed that a little less than 40 percent contained too much cadmium.
The cocoa challenge
Unfortunately, there is no chocolate for sale that is guaranteed free from human suffering and environmentally friendly. To make people more aware of this problem, we organise a cocoa challenge in march. The idea is to avoid buying and consuming any products containing cocoa for one month, beginning at the first of March. At the end of the month you can then decide whether you wish to continue boycotting cocoa or not. If you’re interested, you can also join our cocoa challenge event on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/189994205101852/
Arévalo-Gardini, Enrique; Arévalo-Hernández, O.; Baligar, Virupax C. & He, Zhenli (2017). “Heavy Metal Accumulation in Leaves and Beans of Cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) in Major Cacao Growing Regions in Peru”. The Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 605-606, pp. 792-800.
Schroth, Götz; Läderach, Peter; Martinez-Valle, Armando Isaac; Bunn, Christian & Jassogne, Laurence (2016). “Vulnerability to Climate Change of Cocoa in West Africa: Patterns, Opportunities and Limits to Adaptation”. The Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 556, pp. 231-241.
Gramlich, A.; Tandy, S.; Andres, C.; Paniagua, Chincheros; Armengot, L.; Schneider, M. & Schulin, G. (2017). “Cadmium Uptake by Cocoa Trees in Agroforestry and Monoculture Systems Under Conventional and Organic Management”. The Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 580, pp. 677-686.
Hay, Alastair (1991). “A Recent Assessment of Cocao and Pesticides in Brazil: An Unhealthy Blend for Plantation Workers”. The Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 106, pp. 97-109.
Higgs, Catherine (2013). Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, Athens OH.
Recanati, Francesca; Marveggio, Davide & Dotelli, Giovanni (2018). “From Beans to Bar: A Life Cycle Assessment Towards Sustainable Chocolate Supply Chain”. The Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 613-614, pp. 1013-1023.