How Fair is that Trade?

January 31 Cocoa, Cocoa farms, darkchocolate, Fair Trade, KULtrail, Organic, South America, Travel, World of cocoa Comment


K'ul Chocolate Beans

The world is changing. A Theory of Human Motivation (by Abraham Maslow, 1943) suggests a hierarchy of needs. The core of the theory is that as soon as the largest, most fundamental needs (food, oxygen water, shelter, health, etc.) are achieved by the human being, one can move forward towards the highest goal which is self-actualization. This tier is where we create our own sense of morality and justice.

At the moment some countries have accumulated enough wealth to be able to distract from this eternal endurance race to satisfy basic/fundamental needs. Yet consumers are becoming more aware. We want to be kinder, greener, cleaner, and more altruistic. To slow down. Look at our roots. Of course, this paradigm shift has impacted food trends. We want stories behinds brands other than giant corporations making billions and adding artificial ingredients and preservatives. We want farmers and small artisan producers. Family businesses. Slow eating. Veganism. Raw eating. Natural foods.

This is partly how and why, after 20 years of making bread, I started a small bean-to-bar chocolate factory. My search for clean and healthy food to fuel my bike rides led me to dark chocolate. It is a perfect base for energy bars with a very low glycemic score of 23— healthy and delicious. Something which first was considered as a hobby turned out to be an all-consuming project because I wanted to make it right.

I was raised as a wilderness camper which gave me a desire to leave no mark on the world when I leave. This led to an interest in organic and fair trade items, which I thought aligned with my goal to leave a smaller carbon footprint when it came to food production. When I started my company, it was my intent to buy organic and fair trade from farmers or cooperatives growing heirloom type beans. So I put my boots on, got vaccinated and rushed into the jungles of Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Brazil in order to connect with farmers, find the right beans, and hopefully improve the world.


During my journeys however, I noticed that if the organic beans were coming from farms where the bulk of their income is from a different job, then the organic model was not in fact sustainable! Additionally, as the trees grow older the cacao is often ignored by the next generation and the spread of disease is common from poorly maintained trees. The farmers, who get their money for the cocoa by weight, are not able to care much about the quality of the beans they put in sacks to bring to consolidators. They just want a little bit more weight and a little bit more money.

Cooperatives of farmers might work but without an NGO or other organization funding the fermentation center or certification efforts, they seem to be stuck without a way to market. For example, in Peru I met with many cooperatives and none of them had a way to ship to the US. Everyone offered organic or fair trade for a premium which, after this trip, makes me wonder how honest those certifications are at all.

Finally, who makes up the labor force for those fair trade certified farms that have no hired help or proper management, while all the economically active population works in palm oil, bananas, or coffee trying to make a living? Yes, that’s right. Seniors and teenage kids.

So how Fair is that certified Fair Trade?

We have conducted a survey among more than 200 people in Minnesota. One of the questions was: What do you know about Fair Trade? The comments were extremely varied. From ironically sarcastic “… bunch of SJWs (slang for social justice warriors) patting themselves on the back for engaging in intelligent capitalism” to totally optimistic “…providing a fair wage, doing the right thing.”

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. One of the challenges is that the organic and fair trade lobbies have a lot of political clout and institutional prestige. We see and accept these certifications and rarely question what is really going on behind the label. In one case we might really improve someone’s life by buying organic and fair trade products. In another case, we are taking advantage of poor farmers and delivering income to another organization that is taking advantage of others.

 As a chocolate manufacturer we could simply call up a big distributor and in a few days organic and fair trade beans will be delivered to our door. No need to fly 20 hours or risk getting chikungunya virus in the jungle. This would also mean never knowing whose hands were actually harvesting the beans and prevent us from experiencing the vital components of a small family-oriented business, which are trust and friendship.

We choose farms with great tasting beans, professional management, well-paid labor, and who practice sustainable environmental-conscious farming. At the time of our travel the farms were not able to get fair trade certification because you have to be a small farm under 5 hectares and have no hired labor. Our company is planning to continue relations with our farmers and help them with certifications - whether they are the familiar US-based, or perhaps European-based which appear to be more real world and practical.

The world of cacao is murky due to the influences of a few huge corporations controlling up to 80% of the world’s production. Only .5% of the world’s cacao is organic certified and the floor price for fair trade is $2300 a metric ton.Normally, there are several layers of middlemen between the farm and the chocolate maker. By going to the farm to ensure the quality of our beans, the sustainability of the labor, and environmental practices, we know exactly where our beans originate and who produced them. We pay directly to the farmer $3200 to $5600 a ton, well over the normal fair trade premium in an effort to make fine flavor cacao a sustainable business benefitting the rural population in the growing regions of Ecuador and Brazil.

Our hope is that the amount of people who are buying consciously, and put a little bit of a time to study what is behind our brand, will grow.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not representative of all Fair Trade and Organic practices. This is just what we have experienced. 

Thanks to all our customers and friends

Peter Kelsey



Posted by K'ul Team

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