A cocoa farmer in
Asamoah visits the 'real world' -
where they trade cocoa that doesn't exist,
and chocolate comes shaped like dinosaurs.
All photo's by RICHARD SWIFT
‘What is a cocoa farmer who has never been out of his country before doing in the United Kingdom?' A reasonable enough question, you might think - but the imperious manner of a large, red-faced immigration officer gives it a fully-intended, intimidating weight. Asamoah stands, looking very small and uncertain, in his only suit. It is six in the morning at Gatwick Airport, south of London. No-one is in a good mood. Trouble is in the air.
I have already passed through immigration and go back to see if I can help. It doesn't make much difference. The immigration officer is incredulous: ‘What is a Canadian' - he says the word like it was some kind of social disease - ‘doing helping a cocoa farmer from Ghana get into the United Kingdom?' It is not just a question of Asamoah's skin colour but also of his style. He lacks the self-assurance of the globalized robots who run the world economy and pass through immigration like it's a subway turnstile. Authority smells a lack of confidence like a Rottweiler smells fear.
I try to explain why we want Asamoah to see how chocolate is made and consumed. But Blimp of Immigration is dubious: ‘So, the big chocolate companies know about this do they?' Got me there. I mutter the names of some chocolate people we are to meet and some fair-traded brands. ‘Never seen any of those in the store,' Blimp shoots back.
Eventually the fact that Asamoah already has his visa gets us through. But this is obviously an unusual and unwelcome state of affairs. It is okay for Asamoah's cocoa beans to travel to Britain, but he is expected to stay home. It is one of the central ironies of the global economy - freedom for commodities but not people.
The reason for Asamoah's trip is simple enough - we want his reactions to the chocolate economy, with all the contrived luxury but real power that underpins it. It's a long way from Camp Number One to Britain, and not just in distance. Asamoah is overwhelmed. After a few days he proclaims: ‘It will take Ghana 100 years to catch up.' He is bursting with questions: ‘Why are there no people selling goods along the highway?' Or, after recovering from the first shock of seeing so many white beggars: ‘Why don't their families look after them?' The questions come quicker than the answers.
We start with a meeting in the London offices of Twin Trading, who facilitate the purchase of Kuapa cocoa to make European fair-traded chocolate. The ‘chocolate man' at Twin is Simon Wright, who became disillusioned with the mainstream industry - one of his jobs as a food technologist was to try to reduce the already small amount of cocoa solids in the British product. He now splits his time between Twin Trading and Green and Black's, who sell Maya Gold, the only fair-traded chocolate produced exclusively for the English market. Simon traces for Asamoah the route that Kuapa cocoa takes to market - through the Dutch port of Rotterdam to be processed by Dutch Cocoa into cocoa liquor, butter or powder. This premium cocoa is a key ingredient of quality European chocolate. The fair-traded part of Kuapa's cocoa becomes Swiss or German chocolate - fair-traded cocoa butter is used by the Body Shop as a base for cosmetics.
Neither Simon, nor any of the other folk around the room, believe that much Ghanaian cocoa makes it onto the huge British market. The best cocoa fetches a premium price that only high-grade chocolate manufacturers are willing to pay. Most British factories are not even set up to make high-grade chocolate - in fact, very little of it gets produced anywhere in the English-speaking world. The growing chocolate monopolies (Big Chocolate) dominate in the British (Cadbury, Mars and Nestlé), US (Hershey, Mars and Nestlé), Australian (Nestlé and Cadbury) and Canadian (where Cadbury recently bought out Neilson) markets. These firms' bread-and-butter is a low-cost, heavily-advertised candy designed to gain high market share. The average cocoa content is in the 20-per-cent range - quality chocolate comes closer to 40 or 50 per cent, or even more.
Low cocoa solids means less money for the farmer. A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on the current cocoa price of about £1,100 a ton, shows that if Asamoah's cocoa were used in the leading 200-gram milk-chocolate bar in Britain he could expect just 0.5p from the 90p retail price.
Simon gives Asamoah and me a lecture on the peculiarities of the English taste bud. ‘Historically, the English have not wanted their chocolate to taste much like chocolate. Indeed, they haven't gone for any strong flavours at all. When you bite into most English commercial chocolate the first sensation is a sweetish toffee kind of taste.'
He sees hope in the renewed interest in food sweeping the Anglo-Saxon world. If the fair-trade movement produces a high-quality chocolate using lots of cocoa with few chemical inputs and returning a decent price to the farmer - it just might catch on. The product would appeal on grounds of quality and health, as well as fairness. Twin's big success story is CaféDirect, their widely-distributed, fair-traded, ground coffee. At the moment they play mostly a facilitating role in the trade of cocoa. Most fair-traded chocolate is manufactured, and mostly consumed, on the continent. A trickle makes it onto the shelves of fair-trade shops associated with organizations like Oxfam. But fair-traded chocolate is more complicated and expensive to produce than simply bagging and selling coffee. It has proved hard to break the stranglehold of Big Chocolate, which keeps the price low and saturates the media with advertising. Simon points out that fair trade has to be more expensive - more for raw materials, more expensive batch runs in smaller factories. But a large and lucrative chocolate market means gaining even a small niche could mean lots of money and cocoa.
When the topic shifts to the use of vegetable fats to cheapen production costs - and biotechnology research either to cheapen further or even replace cocoa altogether - I sense Asamoah's unease. ‘Do you think the flavour would be the same as cocoa?' he ventures. I say I can't imagine that it would. A look of worry passes across his face and there is no answer to his query: ‘What would you do with cocoa then?'
Our next stop after Twin is the trading floor of the London Futures Market. Here Asamoah is surprised to discover that, in a place devoted to buying and selling cocoa, there is not a bean in sight. The level of abstraction involved with futures trading is hard for both of us to grasp. The scene is like something out of the movie Wall Street, although the nice fellows from the Cocoa Association who are showing us around are poor stand-ins for Michael Douglas. The screaming, wildly gesticulating traders in the pit seem to Asamoah like ‘a group of madmen in an asylum'. Their purpose is mysterious and obscure. Our guides are at great pains to explain to us the underlying rationality of the trading system, despite its myriad complexity. The purpose of the market, they say, is to ‘hedge' against unexpected price increases in the future - understandable enough, when prices can range between £3,000 and £500 per ton in the space of just a few years.
So far so good. But only two-to-three per cent of these ‘futures' contracts ever end up in the physical delivery of cocoa. Indeed, seven or eight times - even higher in New York, the home of speculation - more cocoa is bought and sold on the exchange than exists or ever will exist. This sounds to me like speculation, no matter who is doing it. Most deals for the physical delivery of beans are done by fax or telephone between the players in the industry and by-pass the exchange entirely. Yet the exchange remains crucial in setting price. It is plain that a lot of people do very well out of these futures markets - just having a ‘seat' in the cocoa ‘pit' could set you back £30,000. The fleeting suspicion that this speculation - or ‘non-speculation', if you want - is on the backs of hard-pressed growers, without whom the whole edifice would crumble, is surely forgivable. If cocoa trading generates so much profit, why should it be so hard for Asamoah to get enough from his crop to pay the school fees for his youngest son in Kumasi? More sane ways of balancing supply and demand are not popular in a market-mad era, with its demands to ‘liberalize' everything.
We leave the exchange somewhat bewildered but thankful to those who helped us get into at least one of Capital's inner sanctums. Our last stop of the day is at Thornton's, the chain of specialty chocolate stores. Asamoah stares with incredulity at a giant chocolate dinosaur - it's hard to believe that it came from carefully-tended cocoa pods.
The next day we hook up with Craig Sams, whose Whole Earth Foods produces the Green and Black's line of organic chocolate. Fair-traded Maya Gold is made with cocoa from a co-operative in Belize. Sams has a broad vision of the political economy of food, and a special interest in cocoa and chocolate. He sees the richness, flavour and individuality of good chocolate as tied to the unique care small farmers give to the variety of their trees and beans. He is certain this will never be replicated in the uniformity of plantation agriculture: ‘Nothing in the world has such a complexity of flavours. There are over 400 distinct smells that come from the cocoa bean - the rose has only fourteen and the onion just six or seven.' Sams finds it distressing that cocoa is the world's most heavily sprayed food crop. But he believes that the small farmer is ultimately the most efficient producer of beans. ‘Plantations can only compete if they are run under conditions of near slave labour, with extremely low wages - and people will only put up with that for so long.' The dramatic drop in the share of cocoa production from Brazilian and Malaysian plantations support Sams' argument. An epidemic of Witches Broom disease on Brazilian plantations shows the way genetic uniformity undermines agrochemical crops.
But if small is an advantage in cocoa production, it is not in chocolate retailing. Sams has had a hard time breaking into the multi-billion-pound British chocolate market. A combination of saturation advertising, clout with buyers and cheap production makes Big Chocolate a fierce competitor. Nonetheless, in the last couple of years Green and Black's has had sales growth of 20 to 30 per cent a year, with sales topping a million pounds in 1997. Asamoah is quick to see a sales opportun-ity and asks if Sams has any place for Kuapa's beans in his future plans. Sams is plainly sympathetic but would require Kuapa's beans to be certified organic. Asamoah ponders this possibility. Later, when we tour some organic West End shops that sell Maya Gold and a range of organic fair-traded chocolate, Asamoah becomes increasingly intrigued with the idea of Kuapa ‘going organic'. He, like so many other Ghanaian farmers, has already cut down on chemical pesticides because of expense. It might be trickier to convince Kuapa members to cut out the cheaper, less toxic fungicides used against the devastating Black Pod disease. But Asamoah is beginning to think this is the wave of the future: ‘I think that everything that we sell should be organic. Otherwise we will be left behind and not able to sell our cocoa.'
We end our whirlwind tour of the world of chocolate with a visit to the Birmingham suburb of Bournville, the home of Cadbury - the only remaining English-owned player in the Big Chocolate game. Most chocolate companies - most food companies, for that matter - do not like groups of nosey customers wandering around factories. We have been refused outright by the good folk at Mars, who didn't want Asamoah to see how they made Mars Bars in Slough. Perhaps they were afraid of a candid photo catching a production worker picking their nose. Some companies, like Hershey in the US and Cadbury, have set up theme parks outside their factories. The parks combine elements of the production process with a magical chocolate world, where fantasy and history intersect in one glorious burst of self-promotion. We enter ‘Cadbury World'.
The overwhelming impression Asamoah gains is of sheer scale: one 12-hour-shift packs 345,000 bars; 800 bars a minute; 12,000 tons a week. Despite chocolate's reputation as a luxurious food, for Big Chocolate it is, first and foremost, an industrial product. Although many of the operations in Cadbury World are still done by hand, in the real plant everything is automated. The idea is to give the customer the sense that Big Chocolate still regards chocolate-making as a craft, carried out under ‘the watchful eyes of our most experienced chocolateers', who never tire of chocolate: ‘They are chocoholics. Chocolate is a way of life.' Some of the chocolateers look kind of bored this Thursday morning. Asamoah feels he would rather work under his trees than on the line for Cadbury. He introduces himself to one young worker and asks about the use of Ghanaian cocoa. The worker says that, while he isn't entirely certain, he thinks most of the cocoa comes from plantations in Malaysia.
The basic structure of Cadbury World takes the customer through a sanitized history of cocoa - no slaves here - to a ‘craft-like' sample of chocolate-making, then a revealing survey of advertising around the world and over the decades. It all ends with a Disneyesque fantasy ride in little cars through some place called Beanville, where one meets such characters as the Bean Team and Mister Chunky Choc. The iconography is perfect - industry prying loose Third World raw materials, slapping them on the assembly line and then convincing the gullible that their purchase is a magic route to a fantasy happiness. In Spain the ads run to flamenco guitar; happy Indians dance in the rain; in the US it is cutesy mini-egg bunnies. Back in the 1960s they jitterbugged for Cadbury and there was always that great underlying theme: ‘I like a man who likes me enough to buy me...' Images of old George Cadbury's first store combine with a futuristic space scene where all the planets are candy-covered chocolates. One leaves with the impression that Cadbury is here, then, now and forever - and there is, naturally enough, a buying opportunity. Ten check-out lanes are clogged with happy Cadbury Worlders taking home the goodies.
For Asamoah, amazement is clearly the main reaction. It is a long way down the cocoa chain from his eight acres up in the hills above Camp Number One. The concerns of Big Chocolate to cut costs while increasing market-share are a universe away from the struggle of West African farmers for a minimal well-being based on a decent price for their beans. Still, that day in Birmingham, Asamoah clearly felt a certain pride that he was a part of this strange enterprise called the chocolate economy.
How the avuncular image of the chocolate business has
melted into the giant corporations that dominate the trade today.
The origins of the giant chocolate companies that now hold a monopoly position in the global confectionery market are an interesting departure from the usual ruthless capital accumulation practised by the robber barons of the nineteenth century. These companies have their roots in the dissenting religious traditions that influenced the social-gospel wing of Anglo-Protestantism. British firms like Frys, Rowntree and Cadbury were all started with the money of Quaker families. In the US, Milton Hershey (1857-1945) was of Mennonite stock and known as ‘the Henry Ford of Chocolate'. He had his roots in the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch' country in the southeastern part of the state. The company was headquartered in the town of Hershey, literally built by chocolate, with streetlights shaped like ‘Hershey's Kisses' and the main thoroughfares named Cocoa and Chocolate Avenues. A twin sugar-refining town was established in Hershey, Cuba.
Part of the inspiration for these companies came from prohibition sentiments. Chocolate was seen as a benign substitute for alcohol - the one a sin, the other merely a minor vice. All these firms developed elaborate schemes for the spiritual and physical uplift for their workers. Trusts established by Cadbury and Rowntree channeled some of the ample profits into worthwhile social causes. These companies often provided good housing and prided themselves on the recreational and educational opportunities they made available to workers. The handsome Birmingham suburb of Bourneville was established by Cadbury at a time when accommodation for many industrial workers was in the slums of East London or the Lower-East Side of New York City. Of course, such ventures were not entirely altruistic, as they ensured the loyalty and reliability of the workforce, extended company control over more aspects of workers' lives and acted as a bulwark against militant unionism. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, the company ran virtually everything, from the local government to the town library.
Today, only tattered traces of the old paternal relationship remain. The chocolate industry, like so many others, has been reshaped by globalization and downsizing. In most cases the family firm is a thing of the past. Technology has taken its toll. At Cadbury's Bourneville facility employment peaked at about 25,000 during World War Two, but today it is closer to 5,000 - although a Cadbury employee about to be married still receives a bible and a carnation. Indeed, except for the smaller specialty firms and a very few ‘majors', it is no longer possible to speak of a separate chocolate industry at all. This is particularly true in the cocoa-grinding industry, where major players include the US wholesale food-processing giants, Cargill and ADM. The infamous Swiss giant, Nestlé - the world leader in chocolate production, after swallowing Rowntree, Frys and many others - is into so many other aspects of the food industry that it now bills itself as ‘The Food Company'. The US tobacco giant, Philip Morris, is also a major player in the industry, with total sales behind only Nestlé and Mars. Many of these majors are now expanding into the Asian and Eastern European markets, either building new factories or, more likely, buying up local companies.
The sum of these changes adds up to an industry that behaves much like any other. Whether the issue is truth in advertising, the integrity of ingredients, the treatment of workers, or the source and price of cocoa - the bottom line rules. Today, market share is the name of the game. Vast amounts of money are pumped into advertising to establish name recognition. Although demand continues to grow at two-to-three per cent a year, dramatic shifts in market share are unlikely, except where competitors can be bought out. So improving the bottom line is dependent on reducing the costs of labour and raw materials. One of the most expensive of the raw materials in chocolate is still cocoa. So the price of the bean must be kept low, or the amount of cocoa used in chocolate reduced. Given this shift to business-as-usual capitalism, it is not unfair to shed the illusions of Mr Willie Wonka and no longer think about the chocolate industry as a benevolent uncle. After all, if we can have Big Oil, why not Big Chocolate?
Big Chocolate wants to make bars with even less cocoa in them -
but not everyone thinks this is a good idea.
What exactly is chocolate? Seems obvious enough on the surface. But what you see when you buy that candy bar may not be exactly what you end up with in your stomach. The exact ingredients that go into ‘chocolate' vary a lot, depending on who made the product, which country you purchased it in and what you paid for it.
Today an unlikely battle is raging across Europe pitting those with a more craft-like approach to chocolate manufacture - the French, the Swiss and particularly the Belgians - against the more industrial approach of the British, the Irish, the Portuguese and most Scandinavians. At issue is how much or how little cocoa you can use and still call it chocolate. Most countries, including the US and Russia, do not permit chocolate products to contain cheap vegetable fats which reduce cocoa-butter content and often the dairy component in milk chocolate. In the name of market harmonization there is a push to change this rule and allow the current British regulation of up to five per cent vegetable-oil content - overthrowing a current European Union edict which prohibits vegetable fats. Big Chocolate is lining up on the British side so it can produce an ever-cheaper low-cocoa candy bar. This issue is currently stalemated.
The arguments in favour of vegetable oil have to do with variety, quality, and shelf life. However, most of these are marginal factors and the real issue is cost. Although it doesn't sound like much - not enough to pass on to consumers - the five per cent could mean millions of dollars extra on the bottom line for industrial chocolate producers. It will also mean reduced cocoa sales for farmers like Asamoah and reduced income from foreign exchange for poor West African countries. There are some 11 million people in West Africa directly dependent on cocoa for their livelihoods. A loss of foreign exchange is likely to exacerbate the effects of structural adjustment, making things like school and health fees higher for a population that is already poorly served. Estimates of the loss in markets vary from a low of 88,450 tons to a high of 200,000 tons, depending on the average percentage of vegetable fats used and how many countries change their regulations. Reduced demand is also likely to be a factor in pushing down cocoa prices.
Opposition to the change comes not only from producer countries but from a wide range of affected groups, including the cocoa-processing industry, dock workers, the dairy industry and fair-trade associations. Some consumer groups are also concerned not only with accuracy in labelling but with the health effects of replacing a saturated fat like cocoa butter with more harmful hardened or hydrogenated fats. This opposition does not seek to prevent the manufacture of these vegetable-oil candies, but simply to have them called something else. They quite logically point out that when vegetable oil is used to make soya spread or margarine it is no longer called butter. Why should it be different for chocolate? The position of the Fair Trade Movement is that ‘for the well-being of the Southern cocoa producers and the rights of the European Union consumer, it is imperative to harmonize the market at zero per cent vegetable fats. The denomination ‘chocolate' must be strictly reserved for cocoa-based products not containing vegetable fats other than cocoa butter.' The name being proposed instead of chocolate for the vegetable oil candies is ‘vegelate'. A bar of pure dairy vegelate anyone?