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Cocoa The Cure-All: Good For Hearts, Minds, And Small-Island Economies

I’ve always loved chocolate.

I grew up on chocolate bars, rationed out in sensible doses by my parents so as to avoid tooth decay, obesity, and teenage acne. The best thing about Easter continues to be achingly sweet Cadbury crème eggs, although nowadays I buy them singly instead of in 3-packs like when I was younger. Double chocolate cookies from the supermarket deli are a tonic for the soul, and before I went low-carb I always kept a box of baking chocolate squares in the pantry for when I felt like making Sunday brownies. Cocoa tea has always my leisurely morning beverage of choice, mixed with coffee the next morning for a mocha caffeine kick. Cocoa is infused in my massage oil, and cocoa butter is in my homemade skin moisturizer, hair pomade and lip balm (and in a lot of my store bought products as well).

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2010 estimates indicate a global annual consumption of 3.6 million tonnes of cocoa products, rising in 2011 and 2012, in the middle of a global financial crisis. That’s just over one pound of chocolate per year for every man, woman and child on this planet in a time where disposable incomes are extremely limited. I am definitely on the high end of the consumption scale, as a scant one pound of chocolate could never be enough to satisfy my addiction, but I am quite sure I am not the only chocaholic out there.

So when Barry Callebeaut, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer, recently expressed grave concerns about the ability of the world’s cocoa supply to keep up with the enormous and growing demand for that sweet confection that comes from unassuming, slimy beans, it came as no surprise to many.

In fact, as early as 2012, then president of Mars Chocolate UK Fiona Dawson warned that by 2020, there will be a shortage of as much as 1 million tonnes of product in the chocolate supply chain. Add to that the increasing demand for cocoa in the health and wellness related industries, as more and more information is emerging about the anti-oxidant and disease-fighting properties of the substance named ‘food of the gods’, and the picture becomes extremely clear. The world’s current supply of cocoa is already woefully inadequate to meet the demand, and the imbalance will only get worse if current trends continue.

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Where Is Our Multi-Million Dollar Cocoa Industry?

cocoa-nomics-cacao-tree-with-podsHow could it be possible that our tiny island of Saint Lucia is not profiting from this grower’s market, when even the best chocolate-growing region in the world is not producing appreciable amounts of the previous commodity? The rich volcanic soils of the Caribbean archipelago are excellently suited for the Trinitario type of cocoa tree, a happy accident of cross-fertilization which married the fine, delicate flavor of the fragile Central American Criollo trees with the hardy brashness of African Forestaro.

Chocolate is much like wine, with its flavor coming in large part from the terroir of the land where it is grown, and the experts all agree that Caribbean chocolate, and St. Lucian chocolate in particular, is the best.
It is something of an open secret in the chocolate world that these islands are where the delicate red fruit flavours in the Trinitario are brought to full vibrancy, bursting out of the cocoa beans and into the prepared chocolate products with almost indecent boldness.

cocoa-nomics chocolate-with-mint-leavesOur chocolate is in so much demand that the largest British luxury chocolate company bought a historic Soufriere estate and lovingly rehabilitated its decrepit cocoa stock, refreshing the trees with grafts of thoroughbred cocoa grown in a Trinidadian tissue culture lab. The same company has poured considerable resources into pushing forward research and technology development in the field. It is quietly building a network of cocoa farmers who are committed to growing top quality product, and it has signed contracts with them so that it can hoover up every last precious bean that our farmers can grow.

Saint Lucian chocolate has its own corner of Borough Market, the most famous food market in England, where it is mixed with chillis and lavender and sea salt in all sorts of exotic combinations. The plainest bars of our island’s delicious chocolate can command northwards of £6 apiece at retail locations.

The problem with this sales model, although it is a wonderful first step, is that apart from the farmers, all the money in the value chain is being made by a foreign company. The investment and impetus they have provided in reviving an almost moribund agricultural product cannot be glossed over, but the current global market is such that there is room for many more players in the cocoa game.

 

cocoa-nomics-cacao-pods-and-beans-in-sackHistorically, the islands have been used as resource extraction economies by colonial powers, and our economies are still set up to work as monocrop exporters. However, global economic concerns require us to put some effort into reducing food imports.

The current leading monocrop, bananas, uses valuable arable land in a monopolistic fashion, which in the long run causes degradation of the land, reduced output of the crop, and negative environmental impacts. Cocoa can function as a polyculture crop, with other crops interplanted over, under and between the trees. This means that a farmer can plant cocoa for export and on the same land, plant coconuts and vegetables for local consumption. What could be better than three cash streams instead of one, leading to greater efficiencies and greater financial stability for the nation’s food producers?

CocoaNomics 101

Why Didn’t We Do That In The First Place?

And it’s easy. Cocoa trees, once they have graduated from the nursery and earned a spot in the earth, are much easier to care for than are banana plants. There’s no need for regular pesticide applications, when the trees are kept happy and healthy, and grown in a sustainable, ecologically friendly manner. The growing cocoa pods do not need any sort of special covering – the only protection they really need is a team of warrior cats to keep rodents under control and careful monitoring, pruning and burning of any branch infested with one of cocoa’s associated fungal diseases.

The introduction of grafting technology means that a newly planted tree will take as little as eighteen months to start fruiting, compared to three to five years when grown from seed. Grafted cocoa also produces consistent results, so a farmer can predict and plan the type of cocoa crop she is going to get.

cocoa-nomics-open-and-closed-pod-on-treeCocoa is better for the environment, too. Better root systems means that planting cocoa on a hillside won’t inevitably lead to landslides. Harvesting cocoa is relatively easy, with no delicacy considerations to take into account. Fermenting and drying, the two most technically difficult parts of the process, can be easily centralized to control quality and are also extremely low-tech and low cost.

 

cocoa-drying-on-large-trays-outsideSo how can St. Lucia and the rest of the OECS make the transition to cocoa- nomics? Our agriculture sectors are such that government policy plays an overwhelmingly large role in crop production. Governments need to incentivize cocoa production, possibly with the formation of a Cocoa Producers’ Organization. Talks with bulk purchasers on a national scale should secure commitments for minimum quantities of dried beans or even bulk chocolate.

Meanwhile, capacity for high end chocolate making must be built up, in order to keep the value chain local. The bulk of the money-making potential in chocolate is not with Nestle, but in creating and owning niche market brands that are exotic and high-end, coupled with a co-operative marketing strategy. St. Lucian chocolate made in St. Lucia would have no problem commanding top dollar and occupying space in Whole Foods or John Lewis.

The demand for cocoa is so great that even without government assistance, individual landowners can invest in planting or replanting their fields with cocoa without fear. Local and regional buyers abound, and the big players who are buying land and setting up their own estates always have room for more beans. In short, the time has never been better to invest in cocoa as an agricultural export crop.

And the time has never been worse not to.

I admit, I have a lot of bias here. The thought of my country making use of its agricultural potential to get more and more delicious, nutritious cocoa out into the world fills this chocolate-lovers heart with glee. Cocoa, pound for pound, is worth almost as much as coffee, the world’s ‘luxury’ commodity. Our country is worth it, and so are we.

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