I love all things chocolate. I mean really, really love deep, dark, silky chocolate in any form it is offered to me. Valentines Day is coming up, and I don’t mean to be a V-Day Debbie Downer, but just like we now turn to organic eggs, ethical avocados, and humane-raised meat, equally deserving of our mindfulness is the chocolate we eat. It’s not so much about our health as it is the health of others; and by “others” I mean children in Africa, mainly from the countries of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
There is an official term created by the UN-ILO called “Worst Form Child Labor,” or W.F.C.L. Sadly, the chocolate industry has risen to the top of the WFCL list. An estimated 1.5 million African children work on cacao farms. While many of these children are not subjected to harsh labor conditions, a great deal are and face a combination of hardships including exposure to pesticides, high levels of sun exposure, heat exhaustion, snake and insect bites, heavy lifting, musculoskeletal injuries, long working hours, stress, physical abuse from caretaker/owner, and forced slave labor often via kidnapping-and the problem is getting worse.
The Ivory Coast and Ghana supply most the world with chocolate from their staple cacao crops. Companies like Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé are all buyers. Mali and Burkina Faso play a big part in supplying migrant labor- sometimes in the form of stolen children sold into slavery on the black market and exported for work. Ghana has made strides in their organized attempt to address this internal industry pandemic of child welfare and fair trade policy, yet this problem is so difficult to wrangle. The Ivory Coast, on the other hand, remains significantly less compliant.
Just last month the U.S. Supreme Court refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by former child slavery victims originally from Mali in West Africa against Nestlé, Cargill Inc., and Archer Daniels Midland. Cargill (who has since purchased ADM’s Chocolate commerce) procures cacao from farmers to manufacture chocolate and to sell to Nestlé; who in turn manufactures products to sell to consumers. That’s you and me. If you eat chocolate, any chocolate, that isn’t committed to and/or certified fair trade, (and even then traceability is questionable) chances are it comes from this supply chain.
Next to Europe, the U.S. is the second largest consumer of chocolate. In today’s food cultural where chickens, kale leaves, and pigs receive our undivided ethical attention, cacoa crops and the kids who are subjected to its labor are practically invisible to the average consumer. Again, that’s you and me. Nobody’s perfect, it may be close to impossible to enjoy chocolate and be 100% ethical at the same time. Understanding, the true cost of chocolate is grave and depressing to unwrap. But this Valentines Day, if we reach for the more ethical (and yes, more expensive) chocolate that is abundant in shops everywhere; or at least be conscious of where our chocolate comes from, then we are doing a great service to the children who provide us with this undeniably decadent confection. Alison Caldwell is Sustainable Food Expert with an M.A. in Food Systems and Culture.