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. Or so I was told. 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 been my leisurely morning beverage of choice, mixed with coffee the next morning for a mocha caffeine kick. And Cocoa is infused in my massage oil, cocoa butter my homemade skin moisturizer, hair pomade and lip balm (and in a lot of my store-bought products as well).
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 when disposable incomes are extremely limited.
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. 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.
So just where is our multimillion dollar cocoa industry? How could it be possible that our tiny island is not profiting from this grower’s market, when the best chocolategrowing region in the world is not even producing appreciable amounts of the precious 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 flavour of the fragile Central American Criollo trees with the hardy brashness of African Forestaro. Chocolate is much like wine, with its flavour 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. Our 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 growing 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 famers 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.
Historically, 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 monocrop, bananas, uses valuable arable land in a monopolistic fashion, true to its status. Cocoa can function more as a major crop, with other crops interplanted over, under and between the trees.
So 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 once 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.
Cocoa 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 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.
So 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 our production. Governments need to incentivize cocoa production, possibly with the formation of a Cocoa Producers’ Society. 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 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.
Hot Bakes and Cocoa Tea anyone?
Cocoa Nibs from the Rabot Estate in Soufriere.