Mike Grunwald 00:08
Tamar, you told me a shocking fact about yourself. You are not a chocoholic?
Tamar Haspel 00:17
I know. And you know, I used to like chocolate more when I was younger. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve sort of lost my taste for it. And I knew I was in trouble when a friend of mine offered to make me a birthday cake, and I didn’t want chocolate. I wanted almond, mango, coconut.
Mike Grunwald 00:32
I mean, that is not just un-American, that is inhuman. Like, aren’t we hardwired to just crave chocolate? Doesn’t it set off our endorphins or our serotonin or whatever that is?
Tamar Haspel 00:48
I kind of thought we were, but then, I don’t know, maybe this is further proof that I’m a space alien.
Mike Grunwald 00:55
I think it it may be, because I will tell you, I love chocolate in any form— the fancy chocolate, the cheap chocolate, white chocolate, the dark chocolate… I am equal opportunity with chocolate. And it turns out, I think a lot of people are. I was amazed to see that the world eats 8 million tons of chocolate every year. And in fact, the average American eats, like, 12 pounds a year. That is a lot of chocolate. And obviously it’s not very good for us, but it turns out it’s not all that great for the climate either. It’s like a double helping of guilt that we’re shoveling onto our listeners. It’s like we’re out to ruin everything they enjoy.
Tamar Haspel 01:46
And we brought a guest to do just that. Rowan Jacobsen is one of my favorite journalists out there, actually, and our paths crossed when he wrote The Essential Oyster, an excellent book about oysters. And we’ve talked about oysters off and on over the past few years. But then he wrote this book called Truffle Hound, which I just loved. It’s about hunting truffles in Italy and breeding the dogs to do it. And it’s a great read and a fun book, and you’ll learn a lot along the way. I swear he picks his topics just so he can travel to exotic locations. And now— he’s written about chocolate for a long time, but his latest project is Obsessions: Wild Chocolate, a podcast with, I think, six episodes about something I didn’t even know existed, which is wild chocolate. So we’re going to have Rowan help us bust everybody’s bubble about chocolate and climate. “Obsessions” definitely sounds like a good name for a show about chocolate. But of course, we’re going to do the dorky side, because that’s what we do. I’m Michael Grunwald. And I’m Tamar Haspel. And this is Climavores, a show about eating— chocolate— on a changing planet. Rowan, thanks so much for being with us today to talk about chocolate, and climate, and chocolate. We’re delighted to have you.
Rowan Jacobsen 03:36
Thanks for having me, even though you hate chocolate.
Tamar Haspel 03:38
I don’t hate it. Come on! But, okay, so I think that chocolate is— even though people love it so much, and Mike likes it almost as much as he likes beef and green bananas— is a little bit of a black box for people. So before we get into the climate impact, can you just do a brief rundown on what cacao is and how it becomes chocolate?
Rowan Jacobsen 04:07
Yeah, I’m actually totally psyched that you asked that, because, as you said, most people really don’t have any idea what it is or where it’s coming from. So I’ll try to keep it short. Cacao is a fruit. People don’t even realize that. It’s the seeds of a fruit that grows in the tropics. So the cacao tree is this mid-sized tree, and it has these pods all over it that look kind of like nerf footballs, actually, or like a delicata squash. They’re those colors, and you open them up and they have seeds inside with this sticky pulp, this sugary pulp all over them. And to make chocolate, you have to take the seeds that are in there and ferment them and dry them. Then you grind them up into a paste, and that’s what chocolate is.
Tamar Haspel 04:53
And so that paste, then, is the cocoa that we’re familiar with?
Rowan Jacobsen 04:57
Exactly, like 100% baking chocolate.
Tamar Haspel 05:00
And then to become chocolate, you mix the cocoa powder with the cocoa butter, which is the other component.
Rowan Jacobsen 05:10
Well, Cocoa butter is in there already, actually, and we can get into this later. But that’s kind of cacao’s superpower, is that it’s 50% fat— the beans are— and 50% really good fat. Cocoa butter is one of the most prized fats out there, both for culinary stuff and for skin care. But its amazing power is that it is solid at room temperature, but liquid at body temperature. So that’s why chocolate has this incredible plastic quality that you can melt it and re-melt it, and that you can have it be solid, but as soon as it goes in your mouth…
Tamar Haspel 05:53
Mike’s salivating now.
Mike Grunwald 05:55
Well, Rowan, we’re so thrilled to have you with us. Let’s get into a little bit of the nerdy climate stuff. Because Tamar and I have trained ourselves to believe that tree crops are awesome for the climate, because they store a lot of carbon, and you can see it above ground. Often they have very high yields. But if you look at these charts— we’re using a lot of Tamar’s favorite metrics— chocolate doesn’t do so well. In fact, it does really badly. It’s up there with lamb. Not quite as bad as beef, which we all know is the worst, but it’s even worse than dairy, and of course, way worse than nuts and fruits and other things that you generally find in trees.
Tamar Haspel 06:46
Let’s clarify that for one second. That’s in terms of just greenhouse gas emitted per kilogram of product. And of course, you don’t eat a half a pound of chocolate. Well, unless…
Rowan Jacobsen 06:57
Well, speak for yourself.
Mike Grunwald 06:58
Unless you’re American.
Tamar Haspel 07:02
But I think that it’s important to talk about that impact and where it comes from.
Rowan Jacobsen 07:09
Yeah, and it’s funny, because in theory, it should be like other tree crops: a big winner. And the fact that it’s not has unfortunate historical blips.
Tamar Haspel 07:25
Tell us about that. Because I think it’s really intertwined with the data points that we’re left with.
Rowan Jacobsen 07:32
Yeah, exactly. Its Achilles heel, you might say, is that it is native to the Amazon. It’s a tree that grows in the rainforest. So if you’re going to grow a bunch of cacao, you have to grow it in the places on the planet where you would otherwise find rainforest. So it was born in the Amazon, and ancient peoples in the Americas figured out how to take these seeds and turn them into chocolate, and it was a core component of their culture. Then Europeans got ahold of it, turned it into a big industrial product, and took this tree that normally grows scattered throughout the rainforest in small numbers, and grew it in plantation style. And these mono crops, they bred varieties of it that were adapted to the sun instead of the shade that it was normally in and started clearing rain forests all across the globe, actually, to grow cacao. And so that’s where it has managed to cause so much trouble, is that it displaces rainforest.
Tamar Haspel 07:35
That’s not the only shortcoming of chocolate, because there are other things that aren’t climate related, but maybe labor related. So, chocolate has made lots of headlines over the last couple of decades, and not all of them are good. What are some of the other issues that you’ve come across in the last couple of decades?
Rowan Jacobsen 08:56
Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of the poster child for bad labor practices. Again, it’s because it’s growing in these tropical areas, which tend to be very poor areas. And so what’s happened is that it’s all being grown by almost subsistence farmers; small holders who maybe have just a few acres and are being paid very low prices, because it’s a commodity, like maize or oil. So the market drives the price, and the price is super low, because you can pay these people, mostly in Africa, next to nothing to produce cacao. And what that means is that they’re going to figure out a way to do it, because they have no choice, and that means using their whole family to do it, and sometimes using children from neighboring places who are fleeing civil wars and stuff. So you get the situation where a lot of the people growing cacao are underage and aren’t being paid anything, they might just be getting food and shelter. And that still might actually be an improvement for them compared to their other options. But it’s just a big mess. And the huge corporations that dominate the chocolate business have, perhaps understandably, distanced themselves, however possible from that situation. And have meanwhile pledged for 20 years now to try to fix it, and haven’t managed to do that.
Tamar Haspel 10:31
So, full disclosure, my husband spent 30 years as a commodity trader, and at one point, he was a member on the New York Board of Trade, which used to be coffee, sugar, cocoa. And so most of the cocoa that comes into this country used to, and I believe still does, come in through the commodity markets. And how can these big companies that produce most of the chocolate we eat differentiate their cocoa when it’s coming through commodity markets?
Rowan Jacobsen 11:09
That’s the crux of it right there. Traditionally, they can’t. Cacao is bought and sold 100,000 tons at a time on these commodities exchanges. Even though it’s being produced by solo farmers who only have a few acres, there are millions of those farmers. And so you have this river of cocoa beans that makes its way to the coast of Africa— and Africa produces about 70% of the world’s cacao— and then fill tankers and freighters and get shipped to warehouses in Amsterdam and other big port cities, that trade in commodities, where they just sit in these warehouses until they’re bought and sold. And so as all the little tributaries of that river come together, there’s no way to go back the other way and figure out where these beans originated. So even if these companies wanted to be able to have a transparent supply chain, right now they can’t. But should they have been working more to try to change that? Yes. I think everyone’s in agreement that they could have tried harder. They really didn’t have a lot of incentive. Everyone’s always threatening to boycott Hershey’s, and there have been boycotts against Hershey’s and Mars and a lot of the big companies, and they’ve made tiny bits of progress, but it’s still pretty much the same. One of these experts I was talking to told me there that there can be easily 12 to 14 middlemen in between the farmer and the consumer buying the chocolate bar.
Tamar Haspel 11:09
So how can you trace under those circumstances?
Rowan Jacobsen 11:20
No one’s been able to figure that one out.
Mike Grunwald 12:54
Certainly, I know in our pantry, we have some of those fair trade, organic, basically goody-two-shoes chocolate that comes in the kind of weird green construction paper type of wrapper.
Rowan Jacobsen 13:08
I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Mike Grunwald 13:10
And just kind of screams, “This is good!” But it’s funny, because Tamar and I, again, we’re familiar with deforestation commodities, right? We’ve talked about palm oil, and soy, and beef. And usually, if you want to make it less of a problem, you want to increase the yield. And apparently, cacao has quite low yield. So maybe there are ways to increase those yields, or you want to store more carbon and the land you’re using, which, maybe there’s some way to do that with cacao trees, or at least not to expand into deforested land by reusing existing cacao plantations. Or, if you’re not going to do that, you kind of have to reduce demand. I think everybody agrees, we’re probably not going to reduce demand for chocolate. When you think about how to make chocolate better as a commodity, what are some of the ways that people can do it? Europe is talking about these laws that are going to require things to be deforestation-free. How could you do that for cacao in a way that would actually help the climate and maybe also help some of these exploited workers? Yeah. Cacao is going to be a really interesting test. That’s one of the big six that Europe was looking at when they passed that new law. I’m no expert on that new law, but my understanding is it covers deforestation since 2020, I think. And that could be a problem with cacao, because what happened with cacao is Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two big players. They dominate. And it’s really bad. Ivory Coast has lost 85% of their rainforest, mostly because of cacao. They have no elephants now, right? They used to be the IVORY Coast.
Rowan Jacobsen 15:00
Exactly. The ivory is gone. The ivory might still be there, but the rest of elephants are gone. But there’s literally millions of displaced people because they’ve had two civil wars, all the areas around them have had civil wars, governments are very unstable. So they had millions of displaced people living in the forest preserves there, and trying to survive. The easiest way you can survive in that situation is to plant a few cocoa beans and have a few cocoa trees, cacao trees, and then you get an infinitesimal amount of income. It was kind of the only option that all these people had. Something like 40% of Ivory Coast cacao was actually coming from reserved forests, which were no longer forests. But it was all illegal, but the government couldn’t deal with it. Maybe they didn’t want to deal with it. Who knows. So that’s the kind of situation where… that’s what’s triggered all this deforestation. But most of it has already happened now. They don’t have any forest left to be forest. So I’m not sure how the current laws are going to apply to them. Some places like Indonesia, which is still actively deforesting, partly for cacao, I think it’ll work better there. But I’m not sure how it’s going to work in Africa.
Tamar Haspel 16:15
This issue of when the deforestation happened comes up over and over and over again, because of course, we deforested huge swaths of the United States and de-prairied a whole lot more. And so now we’re telling other places not to do exactly what we did.
Rowan Jacobsen 16:30
Totally. My apple trees are coming from deforested areas, it just happened 400 years ago.
Mike Grunwald 16:35
Exactly. But that does— I mean, we kind of laugh about it, but it does suggest that this whole opportunity cost question that Tamar and I are always getting at, that it sounds like particularly if it’s low yield, that cacao may have an opportunity cost, even when it’s when it’s planted on non-recently deforested land. But I think you had mentioned that it grows in the shade. And I think I’d heard that there’s this possibility that if you can grow it sort of intermixed, and presumably— you have a podcast about about wild chocolate, this idea that if you can mix it in with existing forests, and it can still grow, that presumably, is kind of like growing a winter cover crop that actually is a crop, right? It’s like, you don’t need extra land for it. And that could be an exciting climate win, as well as money for people who are growing it.
Tamar Haspel 17:39
I didn’t know that there was wild chocolate. And then I started listening to your podcast. So tell us about wild chocolate and how it’s different.
Rowan Jacobsen 17:47
Yeah, so this is the funny thing about cacao, is it’s pure evil, but that it’s also potentially like the holy grail of sustainable agroforestry. And it’s all in the process and the philosophy. So yeah, like I said, cacao is native to the Amazon. It was industrialized hundreds of years ago by the Europeans. They kind of piggybacked onto the sugarcane plantations that they already had in Brazil and the Caribbean, and then moved it over to Africa, and forgot the fact that it had ever been a wild plant in the rainforest. And pretty much everybody did, but the cacao tree itself will live basically forever. It’s kind of immortal. It’s almost like a grove of aspens, or something, where individual trunks will die, but then they’ll re-sprout, so the organism can go thousands of years in its natural, shady rainforest environment. So the trees just sort of hung out there and didn’t care that they’d been forgotten about, in fact, probably preferred it that way. But then, starting maybe 20 years ago, people started rediscovering these wild trees. And, it’s funny, one of the guys I focus on in the podcast literally had to convince people in the industry that he wasn’t making it up, that there was such a thing as wild chocolate, because this is how long— it’s kind of like if you said, oh, yeah, wild tomatoes rediscovered, or wild corn. But in this case, not only was it the original, but in a way, chocolate wasn’t domesticated that much. The original wild cacao actually turned out to make more delicious chocolate than the stuff that we’ve been using for hundreds of years.
Tamar Haspel 19:32
That’s like the reverse of every crop we’ve domesticated. Not every crop, but most crops that we’ve domesticated, we’ve taken these things that aren’t— I think blueberries are are an outlier, but we’ve taken these crops that are kind of delicious…
Rowan Jacobsen 19:49
Or have a seed of deliciousness in them, maybe.
Tamar Haspel 19:52
Right. And then we’ve turned them into these things by, you know, we bred out the poly phenols and things that give them bitterness, flavors. But cacao is the exception, huh?
Rowan Jacobsen 20:06
It’s a total outlier, where we introduced bitterness and astringency to this thing that didn’t have it. Because the Mayan Aztec, they didn’t add any sugar to their chocolate, they drank it straight up. And maybe they could take a little more bitterness than we could, but they weren’t crazy. They liked a pleasant drink, and they never felt the need to add sugar to it. The original was really good. And they probably made it a little better through selective breeding. Anyway, so these wild trees were discovered that made totally delicious chocolate and obviously had a really great story in terms of making it an interesting product. So a few dreamers started trying to actually make chocolate out of these wild beans, and market it as an interesting chocolate. And they succeeded, and now it’s picked up. And not just the wild ones, but also heirloom varieties that had sort of been forgotten in the rainforest for hundreds of years that date back to the Maya, or other indigenous groups that used it. So these are all being rediscovered, and you’re getting all these different flavors that people didn’t know were part of the deal with chocolate.
Tamar Haspel 21:19
But are they trying to domesticate them at all? Or is this only the wild ones that happen to live in the Amazon right now?
Rowan Jacobsen 21:25
You don’t really need to domesticate them, in a sense. And that’s the interest here, is that they grow in the shade, they love shade. This guy in Belize, who we should definitely talk about, who’s kind of pushing the conservation sustainability part of it the farthest; he’s discovered his wild cacao that he has in Belize, it likes 90% shade, which is crazy. No crop that I know of will grow with 90% shade. If you give it 70% shade, 60%, it’s very unhappy. It’s like, “Get me out of the sun.”
Tamar Haspel 21:25
Right. You can grow pachysandra, you know?
Rowan Jacobsen 22:02
Right. So you have to have a forest over this thing in order to grow it. So that makes it a really interesting candidate for both preserving existing forest and for restoring forest, for growing new forest.
Mike Grunwald 22:19
Right. It could be an accompaniment to reforestation projects, right? You’re going to plant your plant, reforest an area, and then by the way, you’re also going to have a cash crop in there. Could you talk about the scale? Because I have to admit, when Tamar and I were going to do this chocolate thing, I kind of looked at it like, oh, obviously chocolate’s so tiny. And it turns out, it’s only 2% in tonnage of the meat we eat. But that’s a lot. That’s way more than I expected. You think of how much chocolate it takes to make the center of a plate, right? So we eat a lot of chocolate. Presumably, I would think that the wild portion is still a very small portion of that portion, right?
Rowan Jacobsen 23:08
Oh, yeah. Well, so the cacao— globally, it’s like 5 million tons a year. That’s a lot of chocolate considering one acre, you might only produce 200 kilos or something. So yeah, 5 million tons.
Mike Grunwald 23:20
That’s crazy. I mean, we only do 300 million tons of meat, right? Which is a lot but my god, 5 million tons of cacao. That’s up there.
Rowan Jacobsen 23:30
And it’s a $180 billion industry, chocolate, because then there’s all these add ins. So it’s a big market. And yeah, the wild… infinitesimal. Bolivia has the most established wild cacao… I don’t know if you can call it an industry. Cottage industry. The whole country of Bolivia might be able to do, like, 300 tons. Very, very small.
Tamar Haspel 23:59
So it’s like a rounding error.
Rowan Jacobsen 24:02
It’s a rounding error.
Mike Grunwald 24:04
It reminds me a little bit— you know, Tamar and I have talked and she knows I have an obsession with Pongamia, which is my miracle tree that’s going to going to save the world and it’s also a tree crop. But it grows wild in India. And so what they’ve done is— in India, everybody, no matter how poor, you have a phone, you know, you can do digital currency, and they’re paying rural peasants to pick wild Pongamia seeds. Is that a kind of model that could work for cacao? Or is it the sort of thing where it really does need to be planted?
Rowan Jacobsen 24:43
No, it doesn’t need to be planted. The people who are doing the truly wild stuff, that’s what they’re interested in. And that’s what I was a part of when I was down there. So, I’m down in Bolivia, middle of nowhere, it takes… I forget how long it takes to get there, but it’s a long time, over a lot of bad roads. But then you’re in this environment where people… it’s very, very simple conditions, probably haven’t changed much in a few hundred years. And the people have always had the tradition of walking into what they call these chocolatales, which basically means chocolate forests. And once a year, they go in— it’s kind of like an extended camping trip, and they harvest the pods and open up the pods and process the beans, dry the beans, and come out with the beans. So they’re literally just in the rain forest, gathering the beans and then leaving. There’s zero management of the trees. The trees take care of themselves. So there’s, in a sense, zero, or close to zero impact. There’s these little foot trails, and now motorbike trails, into these chocolatales, and then the beans come out. And there are traders who buy the beans and get them to the nearest city, then they get transported from there. And that model is now being picked up in Brazil as well. A woman I work with, she goes to different river systems and works with whatever indigenous group is there to teach them what to do with the pods and the seeds once you get them, because cacao, in these wet, moist environments, it’ll rot pretty quickly if you don’t deal with it. So as soon as you pick it, you have to open up the pods, ferment the seeds to create the precursors to the chocolate flavors, and then dry them. And once they’re stabilized, then you’re good.
Tamar Haspel 26:33
But that’s hard to do in the Amazon. I mean, it’s hard enough to do in my kitchen. I’ve had too many fermentation projects go sour, excuse the expression. Because you have to have the conditions just right. How hard is that to do?
Rowan Jacobsen 26:48
Super hard. And that’s why most of the chocolate on Earth, or that’s one of the big reasons most of the chocolate Earth doesn’t taste very good, is it has not been properly fermented. The Maya would be horrified if they saw what we were doing. In Africa, nobody who’s growing chocolate has time to take the extra two weeks for perfect fermentation to create this artisanal level chocolate. They’re just trying to get paid. So they skip the fermentation entirely. They just get the beans out of the pods and get them dry, pretty much as quick as they possibly can. And that’s when you get that terrible bitterness and astringency.
Mike Grunwald 27:23
And then the Hershey guys shove in lots of sugar. And so it all just tastes fine, right?
Rowan Jacobsen 27:28
It’s a commodity, right? In the 1900s, when the system was established, nobody was going to pay you more because your chocolate tasted a little bit better. It was just being mixed with tons of sugar, and who knows what else, and still is, mostly. So yeah, good business decisions were made. Bad human and ecological decisions, but good business decisions led to bad things, basically. But yeah, so in these super remote places like Brazil, Bolivia, you need a little bit of infrastructure, so the rain isn’t going to ruin your crop, and you need a little bit of knowledge, and then you need to be able to get it to a city somewhere, eventually. So those are the challenges, and it is very challenging.
Tamar Haspel 28:13
This show focuses on climate. And so, is it reasonable to think that one of the ways this chocolate could be a climate plus is that it gives people a way to make a living from the forest without chopping it down?
Rowan Jacobsen 28:33
Exactly. Yes. So the people in these areas, their options for cash, for any sort of basic income are really limited. It’s traditionally been fishing or gathering other forest products. And so what that generally gives way to is ranching, often, where there’s more money in burning down the forest, you slash and burn agriculture. And then you bring in your cows. And fishing is going down in many parts of Amazon, as well. So suddenly, they need to find Plan B. And they have this cacao growing wild, which they haven’t even generally been paying any attention to. It was just sort of like another tree that was there. But now, various nonprofit groups in the Amazon are realizing that this is the stop gap that can provide income and keep the forest from just being turned into pasture.
Tamar Haspel 29:31
At what kind of scale?
Rowan Jacobsen 29:34
Depends on the place. In places where you have this wild chocolate, it can make the difference, but you got to pick and choose. It tends to be right along the river systems. Cacao grows along the gallery forests. It likes that annual flooding that it gets from the rivers. So in certain villages and areas, it can be big for them. But in only certain places. It’s not going to save the whole rainforest because it doesn’t exist in, like…
Mike Grunwald 30:05
But the demand for that cacao is virtually infinite, right? Compared to the scale at which they can do this. So it really does seem like it’s a question of harnessing climate finance, whether that’s in the form of governments or in the form of these carbon markets that we always say are the worst solution except for all the others, some way to get basically tons of money into these areas to make it in people’s best interest to keep the forest up rather than down. And this seems like a potentially really attractive way to do that, that would work on the demand side, and also on the supply side.
Rowan Jacobsen 30:46
And right now, it’s just being done on a purely mercantile basis. They’re literally just trying to find it by selling the chocolate bars, eventually. So if the carbon credits start to creep into it, suddenly, it becomes a much bigger deal. And I know a bunch of the usual suspects are starting to look at it that way down there.
Mike Grunwald 31:07
Right. And, presumably, you could go after some of the unusual suspects, right? You could tell like Hershey, “Hey, we have a way that you can offset your emissions, or at least, how about put some money into this fund for Bolivia?”
Rowan Jacobsen 31:24
Yeah, for sure. Partly, it all depends on whether eventually consumers are willing to pay that much for a job.
Tamar Haspel 31:30
That’s my next question. So you’ve painted two pictures: we have the evil, industrialized, deforested chocolate, and then we have the good, climate-positive, wild chocolate. And so, to figure out, those are the two anchors of the spectrum of chocolate. For starters, what’s the price differential?
Rowan Jacobsen 31:55
So, a basic chocolate bar in the supermarket, it’s going to cost you, like, one to two dollars, right? For a bar of really high level, craft chocolate, sustainably grown, either wild or just heirloom, you’re looking at 10 bucks at least.
Tamar Haspel 32:15
So it’s an order of magnitude.
Rowan Jacobsen 32:16
It is an order of magnitude. Yeah, literally.
Mike Grunwald 32:20
And again, I mean, we’re talking about such a difference that it probably… but presumably, some of that is because of this wild problem, or even the heirloom problem, but some of it is because of the lack of a supply chain in the developing world for this stuff where, basically, you’re paying for what they don’t have.
Rowan Jacobsen 32:43
Totally, and if you look at one of the big players, there’s not that much chocolate in a lot of their products. So even if you’re doubling the cost of their cacao, it’s not actually going to change the unit cost that much.
Tamar Haspel 32:59
Okay, so we got the evil industrial chocolate, we have the crazy interesting wild chocolate. Where is the potential to try and use the wild chocolate to fill in a kind of a spectrum of chocolate, so the industrialized chocolate isn’t the only mainstream choice? Mike and I talked beforehand, and Mike mentioned— and you said in the podcast, and you said here that, okay, a crop that grows in shade should be this huge climate win, but it’s not going to be the huge climate win that we would love it to be if it just stays in the rain forest. I mean, we want what’s there to stay in the rain forests. But can we take this idea of a tree that grows in shade, and use it for intercropping with Brazil nuts, or something else that grows in similar kinds of conditions? Or can we breed shade tolerance back in, seeing that we bred it out? What can we do now that we have knowledge of this, and we’re collecting knowledge of this? How can we turn that into more of a scalable solution?
Rowan Jacobsen 34:14
Yeah, it’s all there. And that is happening. It’s still a small movement, but it really is changing. And it doesn’t have to be truly wild chocolate. That’s what I focus on in the podcast, because it’s an adventure story. It’s a treasure hunt.
Tamar Haspel 34:31
It’s a great story, by the way.
Rowan Jacobsen 34:33
It’s just so unlikely. But there’s also lots of heirloom varieties of cacao, and other, even non-heirloom varieties that have pretty good flavor, that prefer the shade. There’s only a handful of varieties that like the sun, those are the weirdos. So everything’s there for it to be grown as more of a shade crop, and that’s happening, especially in the Americas. But even in Africa, it’s starting. There’s a few cooperatives in Africa that are… of course they’re fair trade certified, but they’re also community operations that are doing all the things you want to see done. It’s a tiny, tiny scale, but growing, because obviously, that’s where everyone wants to get their cacao. And there’s examples. Are you guys familiar with Tony’s Chocolonely? Have you come across that in Whole Foods, or anywhere?
Tamar Haspel 35:30
I have not. Chocolate’s not my thing.
Rowan Jacobsen 35:33
Oh right, of course. So Tony’s is a Dutch company that set out, like, 20 years ago. Their express purpose was to get child labor out of the chocolate industry. And they’ve grown. They’re kind of like the Ben and Jerry’s of chocolate, in a sense. Their packaging is very much that fun, funky, Ben and Jerry’s style. And Tony’s buys from seven co-ops in Africa. And Tonys is like, I think they’re, like, a $20 million company now. But they are managing to sell a lot of chocolate at a fairly cheap price. Their bars are huge, and they’re, like, four bucks. I don’t know how they do it, frankly. So they’re buying all their chocolate from these seven cooperatives. But— this is an example of how complicated it is— Tony’s was just dropped from an important list of slave-free chocolate companies, quite controversially, because they had to admit that they couldn’t be certain that all their cacao was slave free. Because part of the way that they’ve managed to keep their prices down is by having Barry Callebaut, the largest chocolate maker in the world, make all of their chocolate for them. So Tony’s is paying the cooperatives in Africa, but Tony’s isn’t involved in the making process at. All those beans go to Barry Callebaut and are turned into chocolate in the exact same facility that is making all the slave-full chocolate.
Mike Grunwald 37:11
It’s almost like they’re more of a logistics company than a chocolate company.
Rowan Jacobsen 37:14
And that’s true for every… if you go to Whole Foods, and this is actually in one of our podcasts, I had this expert walk me through every brand in the Whole Foods— they’re all being made in the same two factories.
Tamar Haspel 37:25
Okay, so this raises a question that comes up over and over and over again. All of these companies want to be able to produce slave-free, carbon neutral, climate friendly products. But consumers are extremely price sensitive. So they’re always trying to do this while keeping prices down. And bullshit ensues. So are there brands or certifications that consumers can actually trust? Or is it all just a cesspool like it is in other kinds of fair trade certifications?
Rowan Jacobsen 38:11
The big stamps of approval? It seems to be the same cesspool that it is in every other one. But so then you choose to opt out, and you look for the small guys. One of the big movements in chocolate, which is true in other areas, too, has been, you know, once fair trade was clearly not enough, they’ve turned to what they call direct trade, where a chocolate maker will be buying their beans directly from a producer. And with that kind of a relationship, you can guarantee a lot more. And one of the people I focus on in the podcast, a woman named Emily Stone, started a company called Uncommon Cacao, which focuses on transparent trade. They buy from various small farm farmers mostly in Latin America and sell to the US craft chocolate industry. And not only do they show every step of their supply chain, but they’ve actually published the prices they pay for every step and are paid for every step in the supply chain. Because by doing so, then it puts pressure on other people. Every farmer knows what everyone else is getting paid.
Tamar Haspel 39:25
And then, how much more does that cost the consumer at the retail level than the standard issue industrial chocolate?
Rowan Jacobsen 39:33
Probably 10 bucks and up. Those are the those are the beans that are…
Tamar Haspel 39:37
So, here’s the thing. We get into this all the time and, okay, I want to be clear. I have farmed oysters for a decade. I’m in favor of luxury products for rich people. I think that they can do a lot of changing, but if we’re faced with this landscape where we have this one tiny sliver of the market that’s really expensive and only for luxury buyers, and the rest of it basically stays the same — I mean, where’s the future for mass market, climate friendly foods in a world where most people are poor?
Rowan Jacobsen 40:22
Right. You can’t put all those variables together. Something has to change. I mean, any expensive product you meet, you get to that, right? Is there a place for expensive products? Or should all products be expensive, meaning all people should be able to afford expensive products? That’s a different planet, in a sense.
Mike Grunwald 40:47
Right. And I would just jump in, Tamar, and point out— remember, this is part of the idea of climate finance. And we don’t think of it much because it’s been so paltry. It’s a big deal when Norway provides a billion dollars to Brazil, and then they cut off the billion dollars, because Bolsonaro is bad. And now they’re going to get the billion dollars a year back when what they really need is $100 billion dollars. We need like a much larger scale for climate finance. But the idea is to offset some of these unaccounted-for externalities that, presumably, a carbon market would help with as well, and level the playing field between the things that are bad, whether for climate reasons, or for exploitation reasons, or even for health reasons. There are ways they can use public policy, and even the private markets, to offset some of those gaps, though, obviously, when we’re talking about an order of magnitude difference, that’s going to be hard to make up. But again, there’s a lot of chocolate. I didn’t realize just how much there was. And rich people are going to eat some of it. Perfect is not on the menu, but my mantra is that “better is better than worse.” And it seems like, partly because this stuff is so shitty, there’s a lot of room for better, whether it’s tweaking the way this stuff is grown, rewarding the people who grow it better, refusing to deal with the people who grow it in the worst way, there just seems like a lot of room for improvement.
Rowan Jacobsen 42:29
And I think some of that is going to happen. I think these cooperatives in Africa are actually the key, they’re the little seeds that are going to grow. And more and more people are going to want that style chocolate, which, because it’s Africa, it’s not that expensive. It’s not that much more. But it’s much better than the standard option. So I think it is going to grow.
Tamar Haspel 42:50
So you see improvement, and you see a path to continued improvement in chocolate as a whole?
Rowan Jacobsen 42:57
For sure. I think there’s enough pressure now, through fair trade, and actually, even the countries themselves are trying to put a premium on what they’re paid, which, in theory, goes to the farmers, but there are some rumors that some of it doesn’t make it to the farmers. There’s increasing awareness and increasing pressure. And there hasn’t been a way to change the giant system. But as always happens, giant systems don’t change, but the yin starts to grow in the yang. So you’re seeing these little cooperatives that are doing things differently and are being supported by beat-the-bar chocolate makers in the US. Consumers… they’ve learned some lessons. Again, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t even let the good be the enemy of the half-assed. But consumers learned to look for that fair trade logo, and for other signs. They learned that there was a problem with chocolate, and that they had to try to find the one that was signaling that it was better. So there is some energy there.
Mike Grunwald 44:08
Before we let you go, can you give our listeners who care about this stuff, not even just the climate stuff, but the exploitation stuff as well— what would be your advice, in terms of what they can do as consumers, and also what they could do as citizens in terms of how you fix this?
Rowan Jacobsen 44:27
Yeah, so support the farmers and the companies that are caring about this and doing it, and the best way to do that is actually— this is kind of fun— a few years ago, some people in the fine chocolate industry and the USDA, of all people, teamed up to create the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. They look at different cacaos across the world, but mostly in the Americas, find the ones that have incredible flavor and that have actual heirloom cultural significance and that are grown sustainably. And they basically put their stamp of approval on those, and they actually help create a market for those. They’re not doing that great a job, I guess, in that most people still don’t know about them. But it’s a really cool program. It’s kind of like what you wish Fairtrade was, on a micro level, and on kind of a slightly like, snooty foodie level. But anyway, so the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund is the name of that, and they have their own website you can go to, but there’s also a great chocolate importer called Caputos, C-A-P-U-T-O-S, that cares a lot about this stuff. And they actually have supported a lot of these initiatives. And you go to their website, that’s, you know, shop online, and they actually have a whole Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund listing of the chocolates that they sell, that are part of this organization.
Mike Grunwald 45:54
Just a quick question, though, I know that Mars, the Mars company, which is the biggest in this space, they are also out there in a big way about how climate conscious they are. And they do a lot of regenerative agriculture stuff, you always see their name. But when it comes to chocolate, is it just bogus? Are they just as bad as everybody else?
Rowan Jacobsen 46:18
They could be doing more. What’s interesting about Mars is they’re privately owned, right? So the Hershey’s of the world, or the Cargill’s, they’re publicly traded. So they’re somewhat hamstrung in terms of doing smart, long term things. But Mars could just say, “We’re going to pay twice as much for our chocolate, and require all these things.” And then would they get crushed in the market, because their target would be more expensive? Or would everyone else have to then follow suit? So they’ve done some small good things, but, man, they should all be doing way more than they are.
Tamar Haspel 47:05
Well, after listening to several episodes of the podcast, I really wanted to do this episode of Climavores in person, because I want to taste those things. And I’m not even a big chocolate lover, but the way that you describe it as being markedly different from the chocolate that we’re used to… we need, like, smell-o-vision, taste-o-vision, but we don’t have that.
Rowan Jacobsen 47:30
I think you’ll understand why you are— why you weren’t a chocolate lover, when you taste the good stuff. But I have to confess I was not the biggest chocolate lover either. I really… it’s a different experience. And I also found that drinking chocolate, making a proper, Mayan style drinking chocolate, was a game changer for me. And it’s funny how many people who are involved in space have confessed to me with embarrassment that they’re not big chocolate lovers either.
Mike Grunwald 48:02
Well Rowan I hope you’ll get my address to these wild cacao collectors and make sure that I can really sample whether their claims are accurate.
Rowan Jacobsen 48:14
Yes, that would be very helpful. Thank you.
Tamar Haspel 48:17
Rowan, thank you so much for being with us today. Chocolate was a subject that neither Mike nor I knew a lot about, that we hadn’t really dug into. So it was great having the impetus to do it and having you here to fill in all the blanks and talk about it from soup to nut. So thank you.
Mike Grunwald 48:35
We really appreciate it. You’re great, and we hope you’ll help us do more service journalism in the future.
Rowan Jacobsen 48:43
Thanks. I really appreciate being here.
Tamar Haspel 48:51
Climavores is a production of Post Script Media and we want to know what you’re thinking, although right now I know that you’re thinking about chocolate. But give us a call. We’re at 508-377-3449 or email us at email@example.com. Your questions become part of some of the most fun episodes we do, the mailbag episodes.