Eat Chocolate and Feel Good about It

By Gunnell, Barbara | New Statesman (1996), March 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Eat Chocolate and Feel Good about It


Gunnell, Barbara, New Statesman (1996)


The odds in the cocoa market are stacked against developing-world farmers. Barbara Gunnell reports on how you can help get them a better deal

The news about chocolate just gets better and better. The British have always known it was good stuff, and eat more per capita than any other nation. Then scientists confirmed that this food of the gods also made you happy (as the Mayans obviously knew), having the ability to promote the production of seretonin in the brain. Other claims include its aphrodisiac qualities and, last month, we learnt that this cheap, tasty happy-pill also has magical health properties promising well-being into a ripe old age.

Great news for cocoa growers, then? Unfortunately not On 1 February, the price of cocoa beans reached its lowest point since 1971, fetching $790.67 a tonne. cocoa prices have followed a boom-and-bust cycle over the past 30 years, with a high in the late 1970s and a slump in the early 1990s. After a slight recovery, 1999 saw a dramatic fall: farmers' prices were cut by half in one year. Today's price stands at around half the median price of the past three decades. Many growers face ruin. In west Africa, particularly Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, up to 90 per cent of farmers are dependent upon cocoa.

Unlike tea and coffee, cocoa has not traditionally been a plantation crop. It tends to be grown by small, independent farmers and sold on to bigger dealers. Despite the considerable risks, cocoa remains, for many, the least bad option as the only alternative to subsistence farming. Like coffee, a cocoa plant takes five years to bear fruit--so farmers cannot adapt quickly enough to take advantage of high prices or protect themselves against slumps.

But the big international traders do well Out of fluctuations. In fact, the greater the movement in prices, the greater the profits to be made. And while growers are praying for higher prices, the big dealers make sure that they amass sufficient stocks at low prices to draw on when prices rise. There are few good years for farmers.

This has not deterred the "international community" from sniffing out signs of lax economic practices that might feather-bed and protect the farmer. Following the usual arm-twisting by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the government of Ghana, for example, has been forced to devalue the cedi and withdraw subsidies from farmers for pesticides and other farm inputs. As in many developing countries, Ghana's cocoa growers have become organic by default. Like organic farmers, they suffer reduced yields; but, unlike organic farmers, the vast majority do not receive an organic price premium.

Britain is a major end-buyer of cocoa and the total UK chocolate market is worth about [pounds]3. …

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