The Cacao Cooperative: Measuring Sustainability in Transparent Cacao Sourcing Systems

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on measuring sustainability in transparent cacao sourcing systems by FCCI Senior Advisor Summer Allen, PhD, in collaboration with Executive Director Carla D. Martin, PhD.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact their shopping decisions can have on communities of origin. Similarly, businesses have an interest in ensuring their supply chain is managed for social, environmental, and economic responsibility. FCCI has previously discussed themes that are of concern in the supply chain such as labor rights at individual events and in our larger forum The Chocolate Conservatory. However, a baffling number of certifications and labels exist that pledge sustainability or transparency in supply chains despite accepted definitions on the terminology used or substantial third-party oversight. Additionally, there is no agreement or uniform tracking of quality as there is with coffee, which hinders growth and acceptance of specialty cacao as a distinct product from commodity cacao, leading to downward pressure on prices. 

The only way to assure sustainable management of limited resources is through unbiased measurement or, at the least, targeted observations over time. Many specialty cacao producers and chocolate makers already track a set of particular indicators such as the price paid for cacao and visits made to producers at origin. However, they often lack the resources required to track other important indicators that could help ensure sustainability in their supply chains.  Given that the majority of specialty cacao used by specialty chocolate makers is sourced from less than twenty origins, there is an opportunity for stakeholders to participate in joint tracking across common indicators. 

The proposed Cacao Cooperative project aims to develop a consortium of companies, producer cooperatives, academic institutions, and development organizations with a shared vision of transparent trade. An online platform, accessible by members of the Cooperative, will compile existing information from select origins while accounting for relevant ethical and business considerations. This data will be available via the platform to allow institutions to more efficiently and effectively understand and communicate regarding sustainability in their supply chains. We anticipate that this work will reduce the burden of data analysis for smaller operations that cannot manage it internally. Beyond this, it will support the strengthening of transparency-focused companies and cacao producers through collective action.

Current coverage of indicators varies, with a number of agencies, programs, and companies using different definitions to report on a range of sustainability metrics. Some indicators have good coverage that can be improved simply through coordinated data sharing. For example, the prevalence of worst forms of child labor in certain origins is widely reported by certifying agencies and NGOs, but less by manufacturers. Other indicators, such as those related to ecological practices and quality or flavor, are widely collected but without a uniform definition. For ecological practices, reporting can focus on a number of indicators including use of chemicals, intercropping, or measures of biodiversity. Improvement of such indicators will require consensus on common language and definitions.

Other important indicators such as income are missing in most cases, likely due to limited data collection and methodological challenges. Alternative methods for data collection and analysis could improve coverage and bring together available data in a coordinated manner. This could better allow for targeted recommendations for producers and help inform ongoing discussions on supporting living incomes.

Consortium members of the Cacao Cooperative project will work to structure guiding documents that provide clarity on quality, sustainable sourcing, and the requirements for transparency.  From these indicators, a gap analysis will be completed using the data that exists for each origin. Based upon the needs of the consortium and the costs involved in gathering the information and training requirements, a financial plan will be drafted, relying upon a mix of grants and fees to support the work.

Once developed, the platform will provide members of the Cacao Cooperative options of various output formats (e.g. spreadsheet, visualized data, and text output) for key indicators from a particular origin. When fully developed, the platform will allow for multiple origins and indicators and, where available, data over time. The consortium can then decide how best to use this information for reporting to consumers and producer cooperatives and associations that are part of the consortium can use this to better understand their constraints and opportunities. It is expected that over time, the database will be increasingly robust and the data collection can be done using mobile phone surveys throughout the value chain in addition to working with local research partners to capture field-based measurements, thus providing an unbiased view of the supply chain. 

An additional priority of the project is to track transparent pricing information from companies sourcing cacao, organizations in origin, and research institutions. Information on cacao quality will also be included with the goal of informing the ongoing development of international standards. The project will facilitate a shared understanding of specialty cacao and sustainability in the sector as well as the compilation of data that can help track activities and potential impacts in the supply chain. It also has the potential to contribute to a clear definition of specialty cacao and a set of guidelines for assuring not only high quality but also sustainably sourced cacao.

Updates on the Cacao Collaborative will be made available over the next few months. If you are interested in being part of this movement, please reach out to us at contact [at] chocolateinstitute [dot] org.

Dr. Summer Allen is a senior advisor with the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a Senior Research Coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Summer is an agricultural economist whose work focuses on agriculture for nutrition and food security and sustainable development throughout Latin America, Africa and India. Before joining IFPRI in 2014, she served as the Research Coordinator for the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) where she evaluated the impacts of certification ofor producers of cacao and coffee. Summer has previously worked with the Economic Research Service (US Dept of Agriculture), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. She is currently based in California as a Visiting Scholar with the Food Security and Environment group at Stanford University.

Mexico's Love for Chocolate

Mexico's national emblem as made by Chocolate Rocio.

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on Mexican cacao and chocolate culture by FCCI Latin American Cultural Exchange Fellow José López Ganem. José is an emerging academic on Mexican cacao and chocolate conducting interdisciplinary research drawing on the fields of history, culture, public policy, trade, and sensory analysis. He has presented his work at several scholarly forums such as Harvard University, Boston University, the Culinary Institute of America, and European Business School Paris, among others. He is also an instructor for the Cacao Grader Intensive, a curriculum developed by FCCI. His professional experience includes work in cultural and food studies, as well as an engaged period in the food industry in New York City. He graduated magna cum laude from the Culinary Institute of America in 2018. Find him on Twitter at @JoseLGanem.

Every February we celebrate those close to our hearts. In anticipation, the global chocolate industry prepares ample supply of heart-shaped goodies - love materialized. Sharing delicious food is Mexican tradition; however, beyond our good friends and lovers, the most-gifted Valentine’s product also has an intimate relation to our culture: chocolate.   

2020 marks 500 years of uninterrupted commercial exchange between the Iberian Peninsula and Mesoamerica. Cacao, chocolate’s raw material, traces its New World-Old World expansion history to the first ship that left New Spain bound for Old Spain. While Mexico can’t claim the genetic origin of cacao and must share credit for the development of Pre-Columbian cacao-based recipes with Central America, our ports supported the debut of cocoa as a globally popular commodity. Demand from Europe quickly spread agriculture of cacao around the Atlantic region. Within the first 100 years of Spanish colonial rule of Mesoamerica, the Pope drank chocolate, priests debated whether it interrupted religious fasting, and Inquisition officials sought penalties for those who exploited the “magical” benefits of its consumption. This was not an uncomplicated expansion, characterized by violence and greed as it was; massive social, economic, and environmental change and inequality underpins this supply chain.

Chocolate became a favorite aphrodisiac for our Valentine dates and its relation to Mexican culture remains a point of pride year-round. However, the state of our national cocoa industry reflects chocolate's complex history and not simply our purported love for chocolate. Africa currently provides 75% of the global cocoa supply - mostly Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana - accounting for approximately 3.7 million metric tons in 2018. Mexico’s 2017 cocoa production oscillated between 22,000 and 25,000 metric tons - less than 0.5 % of global supply. Beyond the complex problems of accessing the market in the global cocoa trade, Mexico faces unique challenges - plant disease, competition with more profitable crops or land use, insecurity, and heavy politicization of the sector, to name a few. These have combined to position Mexico as a non-competitive producer of cocoa worldwide. This may come as a surprise when compared to our demand for chocolate: our country requires over 100,000 metric tons of cocoa to supply internal consumption yearly. Where’s that additional cocoa coming from? The answer is uncertain, since transparency in the sector is rare, but evidence often points us to the large producers of South America.

Despite challenges, Mexicans remain proudly active in promoting their relationship with cacao and chocolate, a model that many other cocoa-producing countries could emulate. At home, many Mexican’s daily routines kick off without a visit to neighborhood tamale stands with champurrado, a type of atole made from chocolate discs or powder. Our elites negotiate terms over a concha con nata and chocolate de taza at Mexico City’s El Cardenal. On visits to Chiapas and his native Tabasco, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tweets about pozol, a cacao and corn drink from southeastern Mexico. Our diplomats abroad promote chocolate as well, like Melba Pria - ambassador to Japan - who presents mole as our version of curry and Maria de los Angeles Arreola - ambassador to Ghana - who celebrates in West Africa the diversity of Mexican gastronomy. 

To continue our patriotic chocolate tradition, explore very special options for gifting this Valentine’s Day. To make chocolate from scratch, order cacao from Tabasco’s Agrofloresta Mesomericana. Or try ready-made chocolate bars from Monterrey’s Cuna de Piedra, or Mexico City-based Chocolate Rocio or TA.CHO, for an elevated experience of Mexico’s remaining cocoa production. For fine patisserie, look to Caramela in Monterrey and CDMX’s Tout Chocolat or Numa Xocolat. Mexico City residents can visit MUCHO Museo Chocolate for sensory delight near Paseo de la Reforma and sip chocolate drinks together at La Rifa in the trendy neighborhoods of La Roma and Coyoacan. Find dozens of Mexican bean-to-bar chocolate products in Mexico City at Central Cacao, under the administration of ArteFacto, an artisan products collective. Reserve a romantic table for two at Rosetta, where Chef Elena Reygadas uses Hoja Santa chocolate from Chocolate Rocio in her desserts, and follow it with cacao-rich cocktails at Licoreria Limantour. For servingware, buy a molinillo handcrafted by the team of Arteollin Alonso, whose work was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal and at Harvard University, and complement it with Oaxaca-made pottery from Muy Mexicanas.

Coby Unger of MIT Hobby Shop (left), Juan Alonso Rodriguez (center) and Esteban Alonso (right) of Arteollin Alonso, assembling a wooden lathe.

Adventure-seekers can travel to DRUPA for a gastro-focused tour of a cacao plantation in Tabasco or engage with the cultural heritage of San Cristobal de Las Casas by visiting Kakaw Museo del Chocolate. Tabasco is home to two large players, historical hacienda cacao producers with chocolate making businesses. They are Haciendas Jesus Maria and La Luz, today selling chocolate under the brands Cacep and Wolter, respectively. If you’re a Mexican living abroad, consider picking up a disk from Taza Chocolate, Mexican-style chocolate made in the United States. For Francophiles, visit Bonnat in the Alpine town of Voiron for some of the most exclusive chocolate bars made with cacao of Mexican origin. Across the Atlantic, find examples of the Mexican tradition-inspired chocolate a la taza in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, or cioccolato di Modica in Sicily. Across the Pacific, Minimal Chocolate in Japan produces bars with the rough texture of chocolate de mesa and Filipino tablea chocolate products will be very familiar, since the latter were developed under Spanish rule, the first cacao plant in the area arrived from Acapulco. None of these foreign products use Mexican cocoa, but they all draw their inspiration from our traditions.

All of the above are indicative of the longstanding relationship between Mexicans and our chocolate culture worth celebrating on Valentine’s Day.