There’s a reason why, for decades, we talked about Belgian chocolate—associating a product with a country where the raw ingredient could only grow in some future post–polar ice cap world where Europe’s climate resembles the tropics. It’s because the commodity crop gained global cultural relevance after colonists brought it back to Europe from overseas and processed cacao into new products such as candy bars and truffles. When the conquistadors first encountered cacao in Mexico, the beans were consumed in a spicy drink; today, traditional cocoa farming has all but disappeared in that country.
I bought a fresh cacao pod when I was 10, while my family was living in Costa Rica. It, along with cashew apples, was on my list of tropical fruits I wanted to try because I was familiar with them in a different guise. While I had eaten plenty of cashew nuts, I wanted to see the red fruit they grow out of, like a comma following an apple. As a fan of chocolate, I wanted to see—and taste—where it came from too. While the cashew apple was a weird wonder, cacao was something of a letdown. The pod itself, which looks like an elongated melon, ended up being far more interesting than the chalky, rather bland seeds inside. Before being fermented, dried, roasted, and processed into cocoa or chocolate, the beans are underwhelming.
That experience came to mind when this very sweet, touching video of cocoa farmers from the Ivory Coast eating chocolate for the first time went viral this week. It’s a sort of aw-shucks moment for viewers—I mean, how could they have never eaten chocolate? “I did not know that cocoa was so yummy,” Ivorian farmer N’Da Alphonse says after taking his first bite, his recently harvested cocoa beans drying just feet away. From a Western perspective, it seems impossible that a farmer could be so divorced from his crop. But growing cocoa isn’t growing chocolate; nearly three-quarters of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, and yet the entire continent accounted for just over 3 percent of chocolate consumption in 2008, according to a CNN investigation on cacao and child labor.
The drawn-out, globalized supply chain—cacao is grown in developing nations, ground in industrialized ones, and sometimes processed in other well-off countries where they actually eat the stuff—is largely to blame for Alphonse and his friends having never tried chocolate. But the same system can both support and hide the labor and environmental abuses that are rife in many cocoa-growing countries. High poverty and weak, cocoa-dependent economies in countries such as the Ivory Coast, the world’s leading grower, have encouraged clear-cutting of natural habitats and child and slave labor on plantations.
Connecting farmers like Alphonse with the product they harvest—and narrowing the gap between cacao pod and chocolate bar—could help solve these more troubling problems of the global trade. A full 90 percent of the world’s cacao is grown by smallholder farmers on plantations of fewer than five hectares, according to the International Cocoa Organization. Empowering these growers through programs such as fair trade and supporting companies that produce single-origin chocolate bars—often produced in facilities near where the cocoa is grown—could help make the $83 billion chocolate industry benefit the people who toil so hard for so little to feed our sweet tooth.