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Roundtable response to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Chocolate

This roundtable explores reactions to the episode “Chocolate” from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver from four experts on the topic. The Last Week Tonight segment raised many important issues in relation to sustainability, labor, and cocoa pricing, and we have come together to explore some of these in more depth. Our commentary explores the following questions: How do cocoa sustainability programs impact cocoa producers in West Africa? What is the link between farmer poverty and child labor? What role does moral justice have in understanding the cocoa and chocolate value chain, both today and for tomorrow? What does the future hold for the chocolate industry? We invite you to join the discussion.

How do cocoa sustainability programs impact cocoa producers in West Africa?

Dr. Michael Odijie, Research Fellow, University College London

John Oliver is a British comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, actor, and television host. He is best known for his HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which offers a satirical take on news, politics, and current events, often highlighting lesser-known but significant issues. Last week, the program examined the chocolate industry, specifically the exploitative aspects of cocoa farming, including child labor, which stem from the poverty that cocoa farmers endure. The segment was notably impactful and well-researched. It rightly pointed out that cocoa farmers typically resort to child labor less when they can afford to hire paid workers; thus, an increase in cocoa prices could be one solution to the problem identified. There is indeed research indicating how much of a price hike is needed to eradicate the most severe forms of child labor in cocoa farming. However, the presentation omitted a critical fact: while major chocolate-producing companies generally refuse to pay higher premiums, they have established cocoa sustainability programs to enhance their image and encourage farmers to continue producing cocoa. Although diversifying away from cocoa might seem beneficial for the farmers, it doesn’t necessarily serve their interests. From the farmers’ perspective, one solution could be to branch out into other crops, but this would reduce the cocoa supply for multinational corporations.

Read more from Michael Odijie here.

What is the link between farmer poverty and child labor?

Dr. Amanda Berlan, Associate Professor in Responsible Business, University of Leicester

Overall, I was pleased that there was more depth in this program than I was expecting. I felt it was more informative than some of the media coverage on the issues affecting the cocoa-chocolate supply chain that has appeared over the years. I agreed with much of the content. Many of the issues that were raised are as frustrating as they are indisputable. For example, commitments to eradicate child labor by 2005 or the reliance on auditing and certification speak volumes for how ill-equipped and unrealistic the chocolate industry has been in its efforts to tackle the challenge of child labor.

However, I felt a sense of déjà vu as I watched this program. As ever, the narrative gives the impression that there are winners and losers in this game, and once again, Africans are perceived as being in need Western support in order to achieve better lives. However, the reality is more of a mixed picture. For example, John Oliver mentions the need for ‘tough legislation that requires companies to do the right thing’ but makes no mention of the enormous amount of time and resources that has already been spent by the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast to draft and implement national legislation in the area of child labor. From the initial concerns regarding child labor to the present day, both countries have engaged with the issues on various levels. As far back as 2002, I witnessed a community leader in Ghana campaigning to end the involvement of minors in hazardous tasks in cocoa production; in recent weeks, I have been heartened to hear from communities in the Ivory Coast that they would be committing a proportion of their time and meagre earnings to boost the local school infrastructure. Having spent all my working life researching the issue of child labor in cocoa, and working directly with farmers, I would have welcomed more discussion – and perhaps even some celebration – of the Ghanaian and Ivorian efforts to tackle the problem of child labor in cocoa. While the task ahead remains of herculean proportion and has been exacerbated by many past failures and much suffering remains, I feel there is space in the discourse around all this to bring to light what has been achieved by some of the local stakeholders and restore some balance to the view that agency is held solely in Western hands. Ghanaian and Ivorian interventions have not always been ideal, rapid, or at times even effective, but there are many noteworthy achievements. The invisibility of these efforts in the public arena is deeply problematic.

News stories offering more balance or local perspectives are not the stories we hear of or which ever come to the fore in a program such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. This lack of engagement, somewhat regrettably, reflects the broader responses to allegations of child labor in cocoa. When the problem first became known, protocols were signed and agreements were made with no consultations with farming communities, or even farmer representatives, and it was assumed that top-down edicts drawn up by powerful and wealthy stakeholders in Washington or London would somehow have the power to change behaviour on rural farms across in West Africa. This lack of engagement has largely continued and based on this, it was absolutely no surprise to me that young people in these communities have learnt not to bother to try to contextualise or explain, and to just give responses along the lines of ‘Just say you’re 21’ if asked how old underage workers are. Given the relentless stream of visits from reporters, industry representatives, researchers, NGOs, activists and many other groups who all come to ask the same questions and whose visits indicate no understanding of the local context and fail to deliver any benefits, is it any wonder that communities now just tell their visitors what they know what want to hear and comply with interventions like farm audits in the most passive (and at times completely meaningless) sense?

However, where the lack of dialectic between global expectations and local realities is perhaps most felt is on the subject of raising producer price. I was in no way surprised to see certain interviewees presenting this as a silver bullet to the challenges experienced by farmers and young people in producer communities. Regrettably, this is another issue where well-intentioned observers replicate wider problematic tendencies. Surely the fact that the chocolate industry has already spent in excess of US$150 million dollars but failed to resolve the issue should be sufficient indication that child labor is not a problem that can be solved primarily through an injection of cash? There is, in my opinion, a need for a fundamental rethink of how we are operating in this arena. Of course, higher producer prices are necessary and would help but this needs to be considered alongside a vast array of other issues such as school infrastructure, the provision of after-school care, a child’s right to quality education, nutrition and hunger, gender and much else besides if it is going to have any meaningful impact.

And this is where this story doesn’t fit the David and Goliath lens through which the issue of labor in the chocolate industry is so commonly viewed. It is not simply a matter of drafting tougher laws relating to corporate behaviour, of consumers paying more for chocolate or even of chocolate companies paying farmers more for a sack of cocoa. None of these, in isolation, will achieve the desired outcomes. Instead, what is required is a much more complex – and in many ways much less attractive to a non-specialist audience – set of interventions focusing on child welfare in a holistic sense and involving a wider set of stakeholders in a coordinated way. There is presently little appetite for or recognition of this among key stakeholders, and with battle lines drawn up between those arguing for price rises and those resisting them, it is difficult to see how progress will be achieved.

Read more from Amanda Berlan here.

What role does moral justice play in understanding the cocoa and chocolate value chain, both today and for tomorrow?

Dr. Carla D. Martin, Lecturer, Harvard University, and Executive Director, Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute

John Oliver’s chocolate segment on Last Week Tonight was widely noticed by my colleagues and students. In general, they have celebrated the reporting for its obvious use of fact-checking and citation of credible sources. Yet I find myself compelled to offer a challenge: how can we frame this story not only in terms of what it means to grow cocoa and eat chocolate today, but also in terms of what it would mean to create a morally just world for tomorrow?

The chocolate industry reflects broader structural inequality that provides distinct advantages for some and profoundly limits the liberty of others. The very fabric of the organizations, institutions, governments, and social networks in the cocoa and chocolate industry perpetuates this inequality through cultural, linguistic, economic, physical, and identity-based bias. Consider how one engages with the chocolate industry and who is naturally excluded from its own structures of decision-making and trade. Most decisive conversations take place in Europe or North America. They are conducted in English predominantly, rather than the important first languages of cocoa producers. Participation in these conversations requires possession of a travel visa, funds to support travel, or at the very least a high-bandwidth internet connection that allows for a digital connection. Money to purchase a spot in a conversation via membership in a trade association is essential. The list goes on and on.

Consider, also, that chocolate is part of a much larger global system of extraction. Studies increasingly demonstrate facts such as the following:

  • “Rich countries rely on a large net appropriation of resources from the global South.

  • Drain from the South is worth over $10 trillion per year, in Northern prices.

  • The South’s losses outstrip their aid receipts by a factor of 30.

  • Unequal exchange is a major driver of underdevelopment and global inequality.

  • The impact of excess resource consumption in the North is offshored to the South.”

Producing more cocoa, paying higher prices for cocoa, and diversifying farms are the floor – these alone will not level the playing field. The structural embeddedness of this “unequal exchange is a significant driver of global inequality, uneven development, and ecological breakdown.” The system is doing exactly what it is unjustly designed to do.

Analyses and proposed solutions for how to end the wicked problems of the chocolate industry are neither universal nor coherent. More often than not, they lack an understanding of the significance of cocoa and chocolate as products of racial capitalism – the idea that racialized exploitation and capital accumulation are mutually constitutive. From its earliest days as an export crop, cocoa (and sugar) was produced, in large part, by forcibly appropriated labor – first through the encomienda system and then through chattel slavery in Latin America, then through systems of indenture and debt slavery in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia – and now through often unrecognized familial labor on small scale farms around the world. In other words, today’s industry evolved over centuries from the demand for taste and wealth acquisition of white Europeans and North Americans. The supply was driven by the labor of people of color, many of them unfree – indigenous Americans, Africans, and South and Southeast Asians. Solving specific problems requires a general understanding of this history. It also requires that we challenge our notion of the market, which is often presented as two conflicting things: 1) beyond our control; and 2) the solution to these problems. It is neither.

The Last Week Tonight segment is at its most stereotypical when it repeats a classic trope of white ignorance in relation to cocoa producers. The episode includes a clip of, to use John Oliver's words, "the most annoying version of a loud man on TV with a British accent," journalist Richard Quest, smarmily introducing cocoa producers to "their first taste of chocolate." Quest hands a piece of chocolate to a nameless African community leader, who tastes it on camera. The explanation of what is happening is wrong on many levels. Ivorians and Ghanaians throughout their countries can access products like European wine, Italian canned tomatoes, Chinese-made flip flops, and more. They are participants in the global economy. In a dozen years of interviewing cocoa producers in twenty countries, I have yet to meet a single cocoa producer who has never tasted chocolate. More likely than not, the cocoa producers in the clip are reacting to a specific chocolate that they are tasting for the first time, perhaps even one that is made traceably with their own cocoa. Or maybe they are simply having the journalist on, exercising their right to know better in the face of his cruel voyeurism.

If we are not prepared to think critically about how to solve the problems in cocoa and chocolate, if we simply consume haphazard, incomplete analyses, we will not only fail to adequately address the current issues faced, but we will also fail to create the morally just world that we all deserve. Those most capable of solving the wicked problems in the chocolate industry are the people who are living with them every day. Together, we must create the solutions that they need to succeed.

Read more from Carla D. Martin here.

What does the future hold for the chocolate industry?

Alex Arnaud Assanvo, Executive Secretary, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana Cocoa Initiative

We live in a fascinating period. We are approaching a tipping point where the ancient world of cocoa is cracking but still resisting change, and the new world of cocoa – a sustainable cocoa ensuring a living income to all farmers – is about to be born.

The cocoa ecosystem is complex, and like in any complex system, when you are approaching a tipping point, you often see chaotic behaviour in the system that is getting ready to re-organize. There are pushbacks from some players, short termism, and irrational expectations. But there are also front runners, determined actors who are striving to make this cocoa 2.0 world happen NOW.

Protecting people and the planet is what everyone wants, and we can all agree in this that poverty is one of the key drivers of unsustainable practices leading to some of the illustrations seen in the show. Combined with an extremely unbalanced distribution in the value chain.

The Côte d’Ivoire-Ghana Cocoa Initiative emerged out of a strong commitment from Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara and Ghanaian President Nana Akuffo-Addo, to balance the scales and build a sustainable cocoa sector with the income of the farmer at the centre.

Recently, I met a young farmer in the central region of Ghana who is very business-oriented and has what we call a good farm – well pruned, shade trees, clean, with a good layout. But he has faced some hard choices since the COVID pandemic. Choices often are between investing more in his farm or keeping his 4 children in school. The costs to maintain his farm are not affordable…

The ongoing global economic crisis has resulted in a skyrocketing of production costs, which has impacted farmers in West Africa. Yes, indeed, the costs for the industry have also increased but we have seen data showing increases in prices of the finished products – chocolate.

Price and income are prerequisites to environmental sustainability. It may sound obvious to most people in the developed countries, but it has been a struggle to make this accepted by all actors of the supply chain. A higher price for cocoa is not to remunerate ecosystem services. A higher price for cocoa is to help farmers make a living. And while achieving this, environmental sustainability is within close reach.

I have been determined to build the case for a decent price for farmers as a precondition for sustainability. The narrative and the vision are now pervading across the sector. This is not a big victory but to me this is a victory yet. Vision matters, and words as well.

Market forces alone do not deliver a decent price to farmers. It’s time to move into a new era for the cocoa sector where the commodity fundamentals are aligned with sustainability fundamentals and where the true cost of sustainable cocoa is featured into pricing so that farmers get the right reward and incentive to deliver on higher sustainability and quality requirements.

We need to make prices viable for farmers – prices that cover the cost of producing sustainably. And we need commitments from buyers to purchase at these prices. Sadly, despite consensus, we are struggling to make this happen.

Read more from Alex Arnaud Assanvo here.

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Romi Burks
Romi Burks
Dec 02, 2023

Thanks Carla for putting together these reactions to the John Oliver. Really powerful to dig deeper into the message - I found your comment about never meeting a cocoa farmer that hadn't tasted chocolate as particularly telling regarding the common "choco-splaining" that happens across western centric privileged journalism. I'm particularly interested in a message that you and Amanda echo that raising prices, growing more cocoa or diversifying incomes alone do not address the fundamental issues at hand. In other words, we can't just throw money at the farmers and hope the problems goes away. At least that is partially how I paraphrase the sentiment. My question is where else and how do you invest? And is there enough money (sarcastic;…


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