When my teenage kids were babies, I held their tiny hands within mine and rubbed them together like they held the wooden handle of a molinillo, a chocolate whisk. We sang the same Spanish nursery rhyme my mother sang with me:
We each hold our own precious chocolate story. It is food that has the power to incite emotion and elevate an ordinary moment. This is especially true for me when I take a square of chocolate, place it on my tongue, resist the urge to chew and let the flavors wash over my taste buds. It reminds me of another song I love by the Wood Brothers, the chorus goes:
If I die young at least I got some chocolate on my tongue.
When I buy chocolate, whether it is a bar, powder, in a dessert like the chocolate gelato I'm enjoying in the picture from Sanders & Sons in Ojai, California, I look for the following:
1. organic chocolate
2. direct or fair trade, also called bean to bar, and
3. made with no palm oil.
All of these actions have immeasurable impacts on local and world water systems.
I will break down the first two action tips below and will dedicate a future blog post on palm oil and why it's important to skip this popular ingredient.
Buy Organic Chocolate
In my book I wrote a chapter on chocolate, featuring Taza Chocolate located in Boston. My tour guide into the world of chocolate was Alex Whitmore, the co-founder of the brand. Alex said something to me that helped me to connect the dots between chocolate, water, and the small cacao farmer. He said, "the communities where we purchase our cacao, use their river for everything to swim, bathe, and drink. So when companies like TAZA chocolate pay a premium for organic cacao. The farmers don't need to make a difficult decision between polluting their rivers. And making a living."
Chemicals in water make people sick. It is estimated that 70% of chemicals applied to cacao are retained in the soil and washed into streams and rivers.
Cacao for 2000 years has grown under the canopy of the rainforest. It's meant to be shade-grown (like the coffee tree), but in the 20th century, the cacao tree was brought out of the shade and into the full sun because it was discovered it could produce twice as many pods. But the scientist and farmers who made this discovery warned of the consequences resulting from the lack of shade, such as the invasion of weeds, the degradation of soil, and new pest. But the farmers were seduced by the promise of higher yields and in the following decades they cleared away the rainforest.
Absent shade, the yields did in fact increase. But so too has the use of agrochemicals. For example, in West Africa, the top grower of cacao, pesticide use doubled in the three years between 2007 and 2010. And chemicals are not as effective. Cacao farmers are now losing 30-40% of their annual yields. Overall the way the industry is dealing with the loss of yields is to apply more chemicals keeping them trapped in this cycle.
But when WE buy chocolate that is certified organic we are growing well-being for these farmers.
Buy Fair Trade or Direct trade Chocolate
Buy socially responsible labeled chocolate like direct-trade, fair-trade certified, and rainforest alliance.
These certifications negotiate a price directly from the cacao farmer or cooperative, empowering small farmers to move away from chemicals. When the farmer has the security of a negotiated price they can invest in the farm. They can afford to purchase shade trees and pay the higher cost of hand weeding and tree trimming necessary in organic agriculture.
Remember, cacao is a traded commodity, like oil, so in these direct trade relationships the cacao farmer can walk away from the dependence on chemicals because they have certainty of price not available to them in a volatile stock market.
The socially responsible trade programs also ensure that there are no labor abuses. Unfortunately, cacao has a long history of child labor abuses including the human trafficking of children to work on the farms. These trade programs, prohibit child labor and require fair wages.
When I reach for chocolate off the shelf I look for a social responsible label next to the organic symbol.