Chocolate - something we should really do without?
From the outset Transition and chocolate became inextricably linked in my mind. Arriving by the backdoor, as it were, straight from the outside world into the holy of holies – Steering Group meetings, I found they featured chocolate. Very nice, expensive organic, possibly even Fairtrade chocolate, the smell intoxicating.
Since I was organising the Launch, I had a later slot in the meeting and arrived after the chocolate had been mainly consumed. I know I was offered some, but it seemed a temerity to accept those last few squares nestling in the depths of silver paper still half in its sophisticated, gold lettered cardboard shell. After a while I joined the Education Group and on the first occasion, in a Transition-ish way that we ate together before a meeting, two of us newcomers were told airily, “Oh just bring some chocolate or something.” Knowing what that meant and ever the cheapskate, I brought a chickpea stew. My friend, a teacher like me, conditioned by many meetings, donated some jaffa cakes. They sat there on the table like a chicken pie at a vegan fair. Probably the first and last occasion on which I will have been embarrassed on behalf of a biscuit.
It was an unsettling experience and one I promptly dismissed, as you do. However since more than anything else, being in Transition is a call to think more deeply about some of the things we take for granted so today I’m taking my opportunity to dive into chocolate consumption and see what I come up with.
The everyday substance we call chocolate is compromising, whichever way you look at it. The ingredients list for the stuff that makes a jewelled display on the shelves by the remaining supermarket tills, cheers up the contents of the teenage lunch box and twinkles from after church biscuit plates, is deeply suspect. Typically there’s sugar, vegetable fat, skimmed milk powder, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, cocoa mass, whey powder, milk fat, soya lecithin … A closer look tells us that most sugar is grown in a far off monoculture with heavy water use and chemical fertilizer and pesticide, whilst the vegetable oil is likely to mean palm oil, grown on land that was, until recently, rainforest. Soya too is produced from cleared land in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Amazon rainforest.
Sourcing milk products cheaply is quite likely to involve intensive dairy production with its question marks over animal welfare, the use of antibiotics and growth hormones and the environmental effects of slurry lagoons. And finally we come to cocoa itself; to create large crops it is grown intensively on cleared rainforest though this degrades the land, reduces the life of trees and encourages disease. Most growers compete to sell on a world market that keeps them in poverty and that brings the most shocking fact of all – it encourages the use of slave, including child slave labour in some production areas in Africa.
Most of the chocolate that surrounds us is cheap and we pay for cheap through the ethical and environmental nose. Yet still we buy it – statistics say in the UK we eat close to 10kg per head each year.
Which takes me back to the Steering Group – choosing to eat organic Fairtrade chocolate. It increases the price significantly but it also means you can be pretty sure that the workers who grew the cocoa were properly paid and the way the beans were grown retained the fertility and environmental diversity of the local environment. The same, you expect, applies to the other ingredients, generally only sugar and milk. Is it that simple? The last Fairtrade bar I bought was from Sainsbury; a look at their website informed me that 100% Fairtrade chocolate was only available on a few products such as Sainsbury single origin bars.
Somehow I had assumed Fairtrade meant something close to 100% but no, to be Fairtrade a product must have more than 50% dry weight of ingredients sourced from certified Fairtrade producers. It makes sense when you think about it, but I hadn’t thought about it. Which leaves me wondering where the other 50% might be sourced and how I could possibly find out. Instead I could look to the organic certification, knowing how rigorous the standards are in UK. Even here a closer look shows standards vary from country to country and there are claims that even in the US big business lobbies have achieved organic certification for some key non-organic ingredients.
At this point I feel as though I have written myself into a dismal corner. Is it all so complicated and guilt-inducing on a grand scale that the rest of life should be one long Lenten fast from chocolate? Judging by the success of my Lent resolutions, usually broken the next day through sheer forgetfulness, it won’t make much difference. I had a leaf through The Transition Companion for inspiration and searched the Transition network. In the end I came on the Fife diet and the notion of an 80:20 split in our diets local to imported and there things began to make a bit of sense. It is quoted in a section of Rob Hopkins thesis, Local Food and Relocalisation and the section is well worth a read in full.
At the end of my journey I realise that chocolate, as with so many other things we could do without but don’t really want to, is so valuable that I am willing to indulge in it sparingly, to pay for what is ethically produced, and preferably to enjoy it in cheerful company, as a celebration of our gorgeous earth.
Pictures: organic chocolate, everyday chocolate, cocoa plantation Cote d'Ivoire, Sainsbury's 100% Fairtrade goods