Should Journalists Have Chocolate Training?

Posted on November 19, 2014 by  Lee Mccoy | 0 Comments

The past week has seen a slew of headlines about the demise of chocolate. Bloggers, pseudo-journalists and many of my friends like to patronise the topic and turn it just another news item to be mocked until they move on to discussing some talentless women's backside or a former pop-singer mocking a politician.

The problem is that when the mass-media perpetuate myths relating to chocolate, consumers take it as gospel and however those invested in the industry work at using intellect, fact and reasoned argument you just won't be able to re-educate people.

The truth is that many that comment on chocolate have a knowledge that begins and ends with confectionery - the stuff that sits on petrol station or convenience store shelves until some passing driver or school kid selects it out of habit. It seems that unless you immerse yourself in the wonders of craft chocolate (or whatever you want to call it) that you just won't understand that its not all chocolate created equal - some types of chocolate prolong the industry, and others harm it.

The problem is that the wider chocolate industry is such a complex one. Many different forces pull on those that grow cacao, process it and sell it that any rant on my part just cannot do it justice. But to start us on the process let's pick apart some of the 'journalistic' insights into the comments from Barry Callebaut set the internet ablaze this week.

In no particular order of ignorance we have: 

Cosmopolitan (Frank Kobola) [Link]

"scientist[s] are working on a way to save chocolate as we know it with a genetically modified super-cacao that would be immune to disease and somehow taste even better. Mankind always finds a way."

To which they mean the type of cacao known as CCN51 - but Frank fails to point out, but which the Bloomberg article he cites does) is that it tastes like shit. It's not a type of cacao that has been naturally selected by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. It was created to provide massive yields and not flavour. At the Academy of Chocolate conference recently about poverty in the chocolate industry one of the speakers (I forget whom) showed photos of a plantation of this crop. The trees were in regimented rows, crammed into the space available and on a life-support system of massive of water channels to satisfy this tree's insatiable thirst. This is a million miles away from the naturally random smattering of tendered trees that much of the finest chocolate you ever taste comes from.

Furthermore, the impact of CCN51 is catastrophic on the environment. It sucks the land dry and unsuitable for the natural balance of flora that cocoa generally requires.

His next comment was: "But just to be safe, buy up a ton of chocolate and keep it in a bunker underneath your house. That way you're prepared for the oncoming Chocopocalypse." My own view is that Dairy Milks and Kit Kats are hardly edible now, I certainly doubt they'll be edible in 5 years’ time.

Frank's comments seem to imply that you shouldn't worry about the potential demise of the chocolate industry if you like crap chocolate for as cheap as you can. If that's what you want, then CCN51 is what you deserve. But really, looking at Frank's other articles then you just have to wonder how much industry expertise he has.

The Guardian (Katy Salter) [Link]

"some might say this (demand for chocolate > supply) is due to serious economic and geopolitical reasons – climate change, rising demand in Brazil and China, the spectre of Ebola spreading to west African cocoa-growing nations such as Ivory Coast and Ghana. We know the real reason. It’s the fault of posh choc. In the last 10 to 15 years, we have gone from buying a foil-wrapped bar from the newsagents to an unprecedented age of cocoa decadence – demanding a minimum of 70% cocoa solids, sprinkling dark choc into stews like over-enthusiastic waiters with a pepper grinder, and even feasting at chocolate restaurants, such as Hotel Chocolat’s outposts in London and Leeds. We are now a nation of chocolate nerds, waxing on about the latest bean-to-bar start-up."

The irony is that even with increased demand for 'posh choc' as Katy calls it, and with the increased prices farmers can get for their products that those farmers are still cutting down their fine cocoa trees and planting banana instead. Fine chocolate accounts for just 2%-3% of all chocolate consumed, so I'm led to believe. How Katy can single out fine chocolate for blame for a million tonnes of under-supply is beyond me.

My view is the exact opposite. Only by increasing demand for 'posh chocolate' sourced directly from cacao growers and combining that with a significant increase makers pay for the fine cacao (and consumers pay) and educating the growers as to how to increase yields that we will be able to increase supply.

The point is that most of the cocoa farms in the world aren't run by megalithic organisations which have thousand-page guides to optimising productivity and homogenising quality. They're micro-entities of a family. Their challenges will be unique from farm-to-farm, country-to-country and continent-to-continent.

Katy shouldn't put a guilt trip on people for demanding 'posh choc' which often gives growers a greater return than the production line,  battery-farm like process of producing confectionery. If it wasn't for the blossoming of the craft chocolate industry around the world in recent years I wonder how many fine strains of cacao would be lost already and how many farms would have been turned into more profitable crops. In fact Martin Christy mentioned to me last weekend about one particular farm that used to grow fine cacao but now produces other crops - and this isn't an isolated story.



The Telegraph (Lauren Davidson) [Link]
"an 11.8pc increase on the 1.54m tonnes sold in the previous year. This demand, along with a combination of bad weather, Ebola fears and a crop disease, drove cocoa prices up by 25pc from £1,600 per tonne to more than £2,000 per tonne."

Lauren shows a handy chart of cocoa prices since 2005 with a general upward trend. There are two points to note, however. The first is that the current price of around £3,117/tonne is about 25% lower than the peak in 2011, and has fallen by around 15% in the past couple of months - despite all the 'don't panic' news stories.

But the most fundamental issue is that these charts are for BULK cacao - stuff that tastes poor and may even (don't sue me) been sitting in a warehouse somewhere gathering mould. Again, I wouldn't care about the price of crap cocoa if it wasn't that so many people in the growing countries (often Ghana and Ivory Coast) depend on it - unless we can help them grow better quality cacao.

The cacao that Duffy, Pump Street Bakery, Doble and Biggnal et al produce isn't made from this crap, virtually untraceable cacao. It's bought direct - either by themselves or by Duffy, or, in the near future: HB Ingredients - people that actually care about the bean and the people that grow it.

Lauren's article does, however, treat the topic with much greater respect that many of the other commentators. She does note that the burgeoning demands from China, India, etc. will have an effect on (bulk) cocoa prices and that with Western tastes pushing towards darker (and I hope directly traded) chocolate. But there seems to be a lack of understanding of the very basic economic feature that, all things being equal, that an increase in demand will eventually increase supply. With chocolate, however, it is much more complicated than that.

When you're making a car, for example, you can swap raw materials. You might swap aluminium for carbon fibre, or a different type of metal. But with chocolate, if we cannot protect the genetic pool of fine cacao we cannot breed it from Amelonado, or some other low-flavour cacao. It is absolutely crucial that we gradually shift people off Dairy Milk and on to a Duffy. From poor quality cacao onto directly-traded, fine cacao. Or at the very least help those with 'poor quality' cacao increase yields without harming the environment AND get companies making better quality chocolate from it without making 75% of it palm oil, vegetable fat and other rubbish.

The problem is that if you manage to get yourself a decent supply of fine cacao saplings that it will take many years to actually start getting a yield of them.



Huffington Post (Rachel Moss) [Link]

"Chocoholics, you may want to take a seat when reading this news. The world is running out of chocolate and by 2020, the sweet treat may be endangered. "

There wasn't a great deal of insight in this article. It just splices other articles from the Bloomberg and the Mirror together. But comments such as "Chocolate that is still available in the supermarket will likely shoot up in price over the next decade." won't help. But at least it does reiterate the fact the opportunity cost of producing cocoa compared to other crops - although she does confuse the term 'more-productive' with 'more-profitable'. Also the article ignores the fact that many makers are turning to CCN-51 to supplement West African supply to produce their mass-market chocolate - with (I have learned) a detrimental effect on the environment.



Daily Mail (Dan Bloom) [Link]

"[The ICCO] pledges to beat Third World poverty could also have an impact - as many African cocoa farmers live on less than £1 a day. "

You could knock me down with a feather. It seems only the Daily Mail mentions how little many cocoa farmers earn in Africa (and elsewhere)! They also mention the investments that the mass-market chocolate makers are spending on factories to produce 'chocolate'. Do you really think that Mars, for example, would spend £170m on a new factory in Kansas and Barry Callebaut £7.3m on a Brazilian factory if they think there would be major supply issues in five years (for their type of cacao)? (Olli McAteer) [Link]

"There’s a simple solution to the chocolate crisis: stop eating so much of it, fatties"!

The entire article is 107 words long and just finishes off with asking how you would react to the world running of chocolate, would you weep gently into a pillow or climb a clock tower? Words fail me, they almost failed Olli. Unfortunately they didn't.


From reading all the different articles about the Barry Callebaut announcement I can only conclude the so-called "dead tree press" actually 'get' the chocolate industry and the troubles that it faces significantly more than 'new media'. Commercial bloggers seem to have a focus on pumping out ill-informed drivel rather than try and understand the causes and consequences of the possible under supply of chocolate. They simply don't seem to respect either the product or the people that make it. To me the real problem is an over-supply of wannabe journalists and an under-supply of real journalistic insight.

The problem facing cocoa growers: the poverty they experience daily, the fact that they often earn less from selling cacao than it does to grow and harvest it is a much bigger travesty than the thought of people not getting their Dairy Milk fix.

And this brings me on to the headline. Should journalists have chocolate training? From what I've seen most real journalists will research a topic and actually speak to people that know about chocolate (although they often don't publish all the experts say due to sub-eds), whilst others do actually care about offering accurate information and contribute to the wider debate.

For those journalists that want to be taken seriously I would suggest they take a few hours out and take the chocolate tasting certificate from Seventy%. I did the other day, I learned a heap, enjoyed it thoroughly, and hopefully my credibility will rise as a result.

For the rest, just focus on how many social shares you get on your articles which often add nothing to people's understanding about chocolate and then move on to writing about whether Charles Manson's future mother-in law won't be attending his wedding.



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