Organic and fairtrade chocolate

You can pay a premium for organic and fairtrade chocolate, but do they taste any better than standard chocolate?
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03.Organic and fairtrade explained


The darker side of chocolate

Cocoa production is fraught with both human rights and environmental controversy, most notably:

  • Deforestation Cocoa farming is estimated to be responsible for the loss of millions of hectares of tropical rainforest. In Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire, only small patches of original forest still stand in the wake of cocoa farming. The average cocoa plantation is productive for about 25 years, then more land is cleared to make way for the next. Unless sustainable farming practices are implemented, our current demand for cocoa means continuing deforestation.
  • Pollutants Cocoa farmers use agricultural chemicals to limit losses from disease and pests, which can run off to the surrounding environment. While the final product may only have trace residues, producers are at risk; with most farms located in the developing world, safety precautions are not always taken or enforced, leaving farmers vulnerable to high levels of these chemicals.
  • Poverty More than 30 developing countries grow cocoa, produced mainly by farms that are family-owned and run, with cocoa their sole source of income. Many of those small farmers have no access to the market and are unaware how much their crop is worth; they’re often paid lower than the market price by middlemen. There is a long chain from bean to bar, so farmers only receive a small piece of the pie.
  • Child labour The sad reality is that the chocolate treat in your child’s lunchbox may be produced using child labour. In some countries it is accepted cultural practice for children to work on the farm as a transition into the family business. But some of these children are exposed to dangerous farming practices: they administer agricultural chemicals without protective clothing and work long hours, keeping them from school. Trafficking children to work on other farms is not uncommon.

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The Fairtrade and organic movements

Between 2008 and 2009, retail sales of fairtrade-certified products in Australia and New Zealand increased by 58%, while the number of buyers of organic products doubled in the five years up to 2008. More products have both fairtrade and organic certification, meaning you can be doubly sure your chocolate is ethically tasty.

Fair trade chocolate

The fairtrade movement was started in the 1950s by not-for-profit importers wanting to alleviate poverty and improve the livelihoods of struggling producers. Over the years, alternative trade organisations began popping up all over the world. Twenty-four organisations worldwide now form Fairtrade Labelling Organisation International (FLO), which sets fairtrade standards and coordinates the movement. Fairtrade guarantees a fair price for farmers (the fairtrade price), protecting them from world market fluctuation. They also receive an additional sum (the fairtrade premium) for investment in their business and community. The standards also prohibit child labour.

The Fairtrade Association says this system benefits farmers and producers through:

  • A fair and stable price for their produce.
  • Security of long-term contracts.
  • Investment in local community development.
  • Improved working conditions.
  • Environmentally-sustainable farming methods.
  • Support in gaining the knowledge and skills needed to operate successfully in the global economy.

The Fairtrade symbol on a label means a product’s ingredients have been obtained in line with fairtrade policies; that the manufacturer and product, from bean to bar, are independently audited to ensure the policies are followed. However, our analysis of endorsement schemes (see CHOICE, March 2010) found that Fairtrade certification falls short on one aspect – it is generally given to “producer organisations” rather than individual farmers.

These organisations can be comprised of hundreds or sometimes thousands of farmers, meaning a “group certification” model is followed. For verification, a random check of a representative sample of individual farmers is conducted, meaning some farms may never be visited – an unavoidable reality, as it is implausible for Fairtrade to inspect every single farm each year. The system also favours small producers, so manufacturers are limited to a specific group of producers if they want to be Fairtrade-certified.

Organic chocolate

Organic cocoa beans are produced using farming practices that work in harmony with the local ecosystem to ensure sustainability. This results in a farm that can continually produce crops without depleting the soil of nutrients – meaning no more forest-clearing. Organic farming also emphasises renewable resources and conservation of energy and water. No synthetic chemicals are used, so minimal residue is left in the finished product and workers are not exposed to high levels of synthetic pesticides or agricultural chemicals.

Certifying bodies in various countries set standards that must be adhered to in order to carry a certification logo; certified companies are audited to ensure compliance with the standards. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service established a national organisational standard, and seven Australian organisations are accredited to certify products. In our investigation of endorsement schemes, we highly recommended the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) and NASAA Certified Organic (NCO) organisations for their conduct, standards and transparency. Imports certified under a foreign system must also meet Australia’s National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce and have documentation to support this.

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