Chocolate saves the world !

At the end of the trail Richard Swift takes a look at the magic bean to see if it can be persuaded to work better for everyone.

THE ironies that surround the cocoa chain are legion. Kids in cocoa villages never taste chocolate. Cocoa farmers - as British immigration made plain to Asamoah - are not meant to travel the route of their beans. In the cocoa markets of London and New York there is no cocoa to be seen and most of what is traded is fictional. The pleasure of eating chocolate is accompanied by obsessions with fat, body-image, binge-eating, pimples and general low-level guilt. Perhaps most poignantly of all, Big Chocolate wants to reduce still further the presence of the magic bean in its product. Chocolate without chocolate.

All such ironies are shaped or misshapen by the market. But there are markets - and then there are markets. In the vast Kumasi market, where Asamoah's daughter Gloria sells her tomatoes and onions, you can buy almost anything, but no chocolate or even cocoa beans. These markets are quite different from the long-distance export market that trades cocoa before the pods even sprout from the trees. A drought may shift prices dramatically, but ultimately it is projections of demand and supply by Big Chocolate, using all the paraphernalia of modern research technology and commercial calculation, that decide price. It's a contest of unequals, with the end buyer and seller barely even aware of each other's existence. The difference in life-experience between a dealer on the New York Commodity Exchange with a six-figure salary, and someone who owns a small cocoa farm in West Africa, is too vast even to contemplate. Yet gaining competitive position for one may put the very survival of the other into question.

African markets are not like this. Here people look each other in the eye, discuss the quality of the goods, what is fair and what each party can afford. If the product doesn't meet up to expectations the buyer can return to complain directly. If the seller thinks the price offered is just too low there are usually other customers willing to pay a more reasonable price. Prices more or less fit the needs of human survival. There is an honesty and an equality here. So when next you hear the 'free market' being lionized, make sure to inquire which market the speaker has in mind.

Serious efforts are being made to introduce fairness into international trade. These are closely tied to the production of high-quality chocolate. Farmers' co-ops like Kuapa, fair-traders like Twin and fair-trade producers like Gepa, Coopéración, Green and Black's and a number of others - mostly in continental Europe - are leading the way. In Canada and the US you can get Masaco chocolate from Bolivian cocoa, in Australia it's Force 10 from Samoan cocoa and Trade Aid chocolate in Aotearoa. But a better price for cocoa remains far down the priority list of Big Chocolate, where trends are the same as those throughout the global corporate economy: merger mania, restructuring to reduce costs, and the battle for market share, mostly through the promotion of heavily-advertized, low-cocoa-content chocolate bars and candies.

Building an alternative unites the battle for fairness with that for a high-quality - often more healthy and organic - product. As Craig Sams from Green and Black's points out, it doesn't take much of a price-break to improve things for the small farmer: 'We screw people to the wall for so little. By giving a 25-per-cent premium to growers, Green and Black's add only four per cent to the cost of each bar, but for the farmers that makes a huge difference.'

One way of giving a leg-up to fair-traded goods would be by reducing the sales tax on them. But in an era that glorifies the unfettered market this is bound to be greeted with screams of 'unfair subsidy'. Yet, for example, agricultural subsidies in Europe are estimated to add nearly $36 to the average family food bill every week. And, in the era of supposed free trade, Ghana's excellent chocolate would meet a 34 per cent tariff if it ever reached a European port.

Things may not be all bleak for small cocoa producers. This spring, speculation emerged on the front page of the lofty New York Times, in a piece entitled 'Chocoholics Take Note: Beloved Bean in Peril' about a bean shortage in the next five-to-ten years. The speculation may be exaggerated, but if it leads to a better price for Asamoah's beans, so much the better. More interesting was the analysis of a convergence of interest between some chocolate producers, environmentalists and small farmers. There is an emerging consensus that the small farm is the best way to produce cocoa as well as to preserve biodiversity.

All is not rosy for small farmers. The shifting pattern of cocoa production across Ghana has moved from east to west as soil fertility declines and trees age. Even small farmers face problems unless the best of grassroots science - integrated pest management, new ideas in inter-cropping, soil science - is made available to them. Who will there be to do this if structural-adjustment policies cut agricultural outreach services to the bone, as they have done in Ghana?

If small farmers are to be the wave of the future they must do better out of a chocolate bar. Big Chocolate won't jump on its own - pressure is needed. On the political side, some of this is beginning to come from the 'Cocoa Platforms': alliances of unions, producers, fair-traders, environmentalists and other activists in the industry in Europe, Brazil and Ghana. Economic pressure must also come from those who produce a higher-quality, cocoa-intensive product. If dissatisfaction grows with the cocoa-poor, sugar-heavy candy that Big Chocolate passes off on a public unaware of alternatives, the market niche for better-quality chocolate will expand. Even a small drop in market share is something big companies cannot afford to ignore. So, as the political hucksters are fond of saying, this is a 'win-win scenario'; good for farmers, good for consumers, good for the ecosystem. So don't feel guilty - buy fair traded and have another bite.

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