You can’t have Easter without chocolate, but it can be hard to imagine that the creamy milk chocolate we love was once a bean; taken from a large pod which grew on a cocoa tree. To make chocolate, cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted, shipped and ground before being turned into the rich treat we all enjoy.

Cocoa was first consumed in South and Central America from around 1,500BC.

For centuries, it was taken as a drink and mixed with spices. When the Spanish arrived, cocoa was brought back to Europe where other things were added – like sugar and milk – to make it more palatable.

Dark chocolate is good for us (in moderation, like everything). It has antioxidant properties, can help with cognitive function and has several other benefits that can positively affect our health. Milk chocolate, while less bitter in flavour, is also less healthy with the addition of fats and sugar.

Exploding tree chocolate

Allison Roberts is the founder of the Exploding Tree, a bean-to-bar chocolatier based in Clonakility, Co Cork. She buys her cocoa beans directly from a farming cooperative in Ghana before she and her team roast and grind them in her chocolate manufacturing space.

The Exploding Tree then adds its own flavourings and local ingredients (like Irish dairy and goat milk) to create a unique product line. Allison sources ingredients locally or ethically, which to her means sourcing only certified Fairtrade and organic coconut sugar and cocoa beans.

“‘Theobroma cacao’ translates into ‘food of the gods’,” Allison says.

“This is the Latin botanical name [the cocoa tree] was given. [When cocoa was first introduced] we said, ‘This is a bitter taste – we’ll add milk and sugar, like what we do with tea and coffee. And then let’s take this out and replace the cocoa butter with other fats.’ So we’ve taken this thing which was a ‘food of the gods’ – used in wedding ceremonies and for energy before battles – and we’ve turned it into a candy.

“It’s a sacred thing,” she continues. “Difficult to grow, hard to harvest – nothing about it is easy. There’s no way you can create it without it having [both a social and economic] cost.”

Connection to colonisation

Colonisation has had a huge effect on cocoa since that first introduction. European countries made chocolate what it is today – a sweet treat – and our love for it has created massive demand.

Cocoa beans only grow within roughly 20° on either side of the equator, and the countries within this band of the world have been deeply affected by colonisation.

Colonisers took full advantage of countries capable of growing cocoa; creating plantations and using slave labour to meet demand. European colonisers introduced the cocoa tree to South East Asia, the West Indies and West Africa, where now roughly 70% of all cocoa is grown.

Farming cocoa

In its indigenous form, cocoa grows in the shade of other larger native trees in a rainforest climate. Though it originated in South America, the largest cocoa-producing countries are now – by far – Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

Farming cocoa is extremely labour intensive. To ensure regrowth, the pods need to be harvested carefully and by hand. Many cocoa farms are smaller than four hectares and cocoa industries in West Africa, in particular, can be tied into policies which incur shipping costs the average farmer can’t afford; making them dependent on larger companies.

Human rights

Child labour in cocoa production in West Africa is extremely common. Although child labour is considered a serious human rights violation, even in Ireland we are familiar with having children help out during busy agricultural times. This is different, however, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), “many vulnerable families worldwide engage their children in work as a survival strategy”.

A recent study on child labour in West African cocoa production, completed by National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago found that 45% of children living in agricultural households in cocoa producing regions were engaged in child labour – and 43% were engaged in what they would consider “hazardous” child labour on cocoa farms.

Trafficking and slavery

In February 2021, The Guardian reported that former child workers in Côte d’Ivoire launched legal action against some of the world’s largest chocolate companies, including Nestlé, Mars and Hershey, for alleged use of child slavery in cocoa production. It claims they, and thousands of other children, have been trafficked onto cocoa plantations where they are forced to work long hours.

In May 2021, Reuters reported that 68 trafficked children in Côte d’Ivoire were rescued from cocoa farms.

Nestlé (which makes KitKat, Yorkie and Aero bars, for example) recently announced it is launching an “innovative plan” to tackle child labour, increase farmer income and introduce full traceability into their cocoa. It plans to invest over €1.27bn over the next decade to achieve these new goals, which include providing cash incentives for farmers to introduce regenerative practises on cocoa farms.

Maintaining control

While welcome, Allison feels these commitments are about maintaining control over farmers as opposed to providing them with autonomy within their farms and communities.

“All steps towards supporting farmers are positive, but the fact that they won’t sign up for Fairtrade certification – which is independently audited – and instead are controlling their own programme shows the limit of their commitment.”

UK-based publication Ethical Consumer provides a handy, in-depth ranking of chocolate companies looking at their commitments to the environment, people and politics. Nestlé consistently places at the bottom and is considered their number one company to avoid. Mondelez (the company which acquired Cadbury – which makes Dairy Milk, Boost and Twirl chocolate bars) scored 1. The highest-ranked company is Pacari with 18.5. Nestlé ranks 0.

Consumer woes

Allison says this isn’t about putting blame on consumers – as chocolate producers, it is the responsibility of companies to source their ingredients accordingly.

“The idea that consumers have the power – I actually think that’s way too complicated for people,” she says. “It comes down to the companies. I need to feel good about the way I’m making a living. If I’m making a living off the back of slaves and children who are being kidnapped in West Africa, that’s not going to sit well with me.

“When you buy something [from a smaller business], you’re buying from a person who knows about the supply chain. In a big company, you might have someone in marketing and someone in supply and they might not speak. The marketing department could be completely ignorant about the supply chain, and that’s dangerous.”

Is Fairtrade helping?

The most important argument against Fairtrade is perhaps the fact that there is an oversupply of certified products and a lack of demand for said products. Fairtrade farmers can end up selling their product for conventional prices, as a result. Allison says despite this, Fairtrade has worked well in specific regions for specific things.

“Every place is different,” she says. “Fairtrade is a stop-gap measure in certain parts of the world and it’s very important in Africa. Getting a port licence to be able to sell [the cocoa beans] is difficult. In Ghana they have the ability to control the farmers; they can’t get to market without someone who has access to the port.

“The change Fairtrade makes [there] is humongous,” she continues. “That’s why I support it. The West African industry was built up around slaves. I am interested in working in the space where we – the wealthy, white west - have done the most damage and made the most profit. I want to put my small amount of business toward making it better.”

If you’re concerned about the ethics behind your annual Easter egg, buying from a smaller producer is always a good starting point. Allison says if there is no traceability attached to the chocolate, you can take that as a bad sign.

What is Fairtrade?

The fair trade movement aims to pay higher prices for commodity items (like coffee, sugar and cocoa) to primary producers in developing countries. Fair trade certification bodies work directly with farmers, producers and cooperatives to create better working conditions, reach community development goals and become financially autonomous. To be certified, cooperatives must address things like gender equity and child labour. Originally, fair trade worked specifically with farmers, but in recent years it has expanded into other commodities which require labour (like cut flowers, gold or cotton, for example).

Tony’s Chocolonely

Tony's Chocolonely Easter range.

A brand of chocolate gaining popularity with Irish consumers concerned about child labour is UK-made Tony’s Chocolonely. It promises its product line is 100% slave-free by incorporating their five sourcing principles: traceable cocoa, higher prices, empowering farmers, minimum five-year commitments to farmers and helping farmers improve productivity.

“There are currently 1.56m children working illegally on cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast where 60% of the world’s cocoa comes from, and at least 30,000 instances of modern slavery,” says Tony Chocolonely’s head of marketing in the UK and Ireland, Nicola Matthews. “We are proving that it is possible to be a successful chocolate brand and company that sources cocoa from West Africa without exploiting those at the start of the supply chain. We have made our five sourcing principles open source and need all the world’s biggest chocolate companies to adopt it so we can make all chocolate 100% slave free.”

Tony's Chocolonely Easter range.

Tony’s Chocolonely has released its Easter range for 2022, which includes its Egg-stra Special Chocolate Eggs and Chocolate Egg pouches in multiple flavours. It agrees with Allison that looking for a Fairtrade logo on your bar of chocolate is a good way to ensure you’re buying ethically.

“This means farmers are being paid more for their cocoa,” Nicola explains. “It can be quite confusing as lots of big chocolate brands have created their own certification systems and marks on pack which, unfortunately, does not always mean what consumers think it does.

“Another way consumers can be part of changing the industry is asking their favourite brands what they are doing to support cocoa farmers and eradicate illegal labour from their supply chains. They will only change for the better if there is pressure from consumers, retailers and legislation.”

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