Today, World Chocolate Day, we celebrate this beloved treat that emerged from the jungles of Central America to dominate the confectionery world. For most people, chocolate is synonymous with indulgence, a rich treat to be relished. But for the millions of small-scale farmers producing most of the world’s cocoa, it’s a synonym for poverty.
According to recent research from Fairtrade International, the median income for a cocoa household in the Ivory Coast — the nation that produces more of the world’s cocoa than any other — is just $2,707 per year, an amount hovering close to the extreme poverty level of $2,276. The research of more than 3,000 households found that just 12 percent of those surveyed earned a living income.
If we hope for a future with chocolate, we must work so that all can benefit from chocolate — from the small-scale farmer in West Africa to the child sharing a chocolate bar with a friend.
It’s estimated that the average American eats over 9 pounds of chocolate each year; the chocolate market in the United States reached $17.6 billion in 2016. The sheer volume and continued growth has been a boon for companies around the globe, but less so for the 40 million to 50 million farmers, workers and their families who depend on cocoa for their livelihoods.
Fairtrade’s research was included in the recently released 2018 Cocoa Barometer, which is published biennially by a global consortium of civil-society organizations. The scope and scale of the problems in cocoa are staggering: An estimated 2.1 million children are engaged in hazardous work in the fields of the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone. The average cocoa farming household in the Ivory Coast earns just 37 percent of a living income. The average age of farmers in Ghana — the second-largest cocoa producer — is 52, and few young people see farming as an attractive vocation.
Still, our research showed that cocoa continues to be the best among few options for millions of small farmers. In the Ivory Coast, which produces 40 percent of all cocoa, there simply aren’t alternatives that provide farmers with comparatively stable incomes and a certain level of land security. But basing your livelihood on the “least worst” option has seldom made for good business.
The Cocoa Barometer points out a systemic failure in the cocoa trade: Price risk has consistently been pushed further down the supply chain, putting an unbearable strain on farmers’ fragile income. The resulting poverty carries numerous implications: Children forced into the fields to support their families. Rampant deforestation in protected areas as farmers struggle to grow enough cocoa. An aging population of farmers, with few lining up to take their place.
The industry is well aware of these challenges and has responded over the past years by working to improve farm productivity and diversifying crops. It’s true, these are important steps. The average cocoa farm in the Ivory Coast yields only half of what could be achieved with good training, fertilizer and other resources. Crop diversification can help families lessen their dependence on one crop.
Yet our research shows that even if farmers were able to triple their yields, they would still not be able to achieve a living income. This strong focus on productivity benefits traders and consumers more than farmers. Last year, farmers saw cocoa prices — already very low — drop 36 percent more. At the root of the problems in cocoa is what farmers are paid.
Until recently, price has been a taboo subject in the cocoa industry; the market cannot be wrong. The Cocoa Barometer shows that most other possible solutions have proved ineffective — the only major intervention left is price. If we want the cocoa industry to thrive, we must be willing to pay farmers more for the risks they take as entrepreneurs. That would mean a price that allows them to send their children to school, to protect the local environment and make cocoa a viable option for young people.
At Fairtrade, we are rolling out a new cocoa strategy that lays the groundwork for a living income through an approach that includes productivity, cost efficiency and sales on Fairtrade terms. Fairtrade is the only certification that requires companies to pay at least a minimum price and premium. We are now committed to pushing forward with a new sustainable pricing model based on a living income reference price. Last year, sales of Fairtrade-certified cocoa grew by over 25 percent to more than 13 million tons. And though that represents a fraction of the overall cocoa market, the strong growth shows that consumers are ready and willing to seek out chocolate that does better by cocoa farmers.
We believe that the cocoa lovers of the world can push to ensure a living income for farmers. The next time you buy chocolate, take a moment in the grocery store aisle and consider where your treat comes from. Look for Fairtrade options that can provide farmers with a better price. And ask yourself, am I willing to pay what chocolate is worth? Because we already know the farmers are giving all that they have.