Sustainable Sweetness: WGELA Brings Bean-to-Bar Chocolate to Campus

One of the coolest parts of being back in school: It’s incredibly easy to get a taste of the wide range of interests held by other students and faculty in my program and across campus. Pretty much every environmental topic is linked to many others, in obvious or in unexpected ways. So whether your core interest is forest ecology, resource finance, pollution law, or something else entirely, getting a glimpse at the passions of the folks around you can enrich your understanding of the broader systems that play roles in all environmental outcomes, and can even help you see your own work through a new lens.

Any given week around here, you can find a dozen student-run groups or campus institutes hosting speakers or documentary screenings, offering a volunteer opportunity or contest, or putting together some interesting activity meant to build discussion across the community.

Just before spring break, for example, the students in the Working Group on the Environment in Latin America (WGELA) brought a founder of Raleigh’s artisanal chocolate company Escazu to Environment Hall. Students who signed up for the free event got to learn about the company’s small-batch chocolate-making—and got to taste some of the outcomes. We also got a window into the complexities and trade-offs of running a small business committed to ethical product sourcing in a historically fraught industry.

Serious economic and political power dynamics loom large in conversations about cacao—a crop which can reshape landscapes, physical and social, for better or for worse. Cacao farming today ranges from massive plantations (especially in megaproducing West African countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana) to smaller family-owned microfarms tucked into rainforests at the latitudes where the trees thrive. In some cases, small land-owning farmers may be driven by falling prices and a desire to improve their circumstances to clearcut more and more forest; these clearcut areas may include protected national parks and biological reserves.

As might be expected, cacao’s social and environmental impacts range across an equally broad spectrum. In some parts of the world, long histories of slavery and exploitative colonial practices have given way to more modern “resource curse” dynamics. Fueling deforestation and funding conflicts, these kinds of ecologically- and socially-destructive supply chains feed an international demand for an ever-cheaper crop, regardless of the rising costs to farmers and land. [To be fair, some of the major industry players of conventional chocolate appear to be trying, at least nominally, to mitigate these impacts.] This dynamic is complicated by the fact that some of these countries are shipping most of their cacao to the countries that once colonized them, while relatively few of the people producing cacao are chocolate consumers (or could even afford to be).

On the other hand, some styles of cacao farming promote more sustainable land use while (at least potentially) reducing poverty and perhaps even healing former rifts in some communities. These positive models of what cacao farming can mean for a region are buoyed by a growing willingness in certain global market sectors to pay higher prices for a more ethically sound (and often much tastier) product.

Escazu works to source its beans only from family farms and cooperatives that fall into the latter camp. Employees make regular trips to Latin America to build personal connections with such companies in the region, as well as to directly confirm the practices being employed in these operations. The result is a network of relationships that not only support more ecologically sustainable farming practices, but also ensure a higher quality product for the company: years of repeated interactions build trust, the Escazu rep told us, meaning the company can get a realistic assessment from half a world away of which cacao cultivars have had the best harvest in a given season, or whether to take a risk on something new.

The rep showed us photos of cacao harvesting and processing, starting with the dangling yellow fruit pods that sprout directly from the trunk of the cacao tree. He also brought out some preserved pods for us to inspect, and passed around a bag of dried cacao beans (still in their papery skin) for those who wanted to taste the raw ingredient. Harvesters break open the husks and scoop out the fruit-covered seeds (pictured up top), allowing the beans to ferment and react in the acidic pulp for several days. Once fermented, the beans are dried for shipping (and, importantly, for preservation, given that the global cacao harvest is seasonal, while chocolate production is year-round). The beans must then be roasted and sorted before they are pulverized with sugar into a rich mass on the company’s old-school antique melangeur.

Milk may be added to the final chocolate product, though this can obscure the interesting and subtle flavors of the roasted bean itself. Like coffee (which WGELA is also hosting a tasting of this week!), cacao can take on radically different qualities depending on the strain of tree, the location of planting, and the treatment of the bean after harvest. These factors can lead to delicate variations in flavors that are often lost in the process of larger-scale mass chocolate production, in which beans sourced from a range of cultivars may be indiscriminately mixed, over-roasted, diluted to the lowest (i.e., cheapest) possible concentration, and then masked and smoothed with milk and other flavoring agents.

But single-cultivar chocolates, or blended chocolates carefully produced from high-quality beans, can be bright and nutty, rich and floral, or any number of other qualities inherent to the plants’ genes, location, and style of fermentation and roasting. The interesting genetic history of cacao—born in Latin America, spread globally, ravaged periodically by disease, and in some regions sequestered by terrain into unique subspecies—means that some tiny cacao-producing regions are known globally for their unique flavors and qualities. To this day, some of the most prized strains of the tree are found only on farms in single regions of Colombia and Venezuela, reachable only by boat.

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The chocolate produced by Escazu, sourced with regard for origin and manufactured with care for the bean’s subtle properties, provides a fundamentally different experience from, say, eating a piece of a Hershey’s bar. For contrast, we tasted 2 variations of chocolate made with the piaroa bean type; this chocolate contained no milk but had a bright nuttiness that the rep described (accurately) as including “cashew” notes (something I can’t imagine myself ever saying about the kind of chocolate that appears as Halloween candy) . A third style we tried was made with something like 60% cacao and with a rich goat’s milk (falling into the category of a “dark milk chocolate”, as normal milk chocolates usually have a much lower cacao content). Given the distinctive taste (and, perhaps, thanks to the simple act of being asked to be present in the moment and carefully consider the flavor and texture we were experiencing), it was easy to see why such a product would be valued at a higher price than what a non-artisanal chocolate would bring.

We also talked about some of the tradeoffs that come from running a business with an eye toward environmental sustainability. For example, the rep cited a certification that the company has looked at working to receive which requires the use of organically-grown sugar. Is switching from a local sugar source to an organic cane sugar an environmentally-friendly choice, if that sugar is grown in Brazil—meaning it must be shipped north, with the corresponding fuel costs and carbon footprint? Never mind here the valid concerns that Officially Certified Organic practices don’t always make the most environmental sense in all contexts—the more interesting point in my view is that in a complex global supply chain, major tradeoffs and questions still exist even for companies seriously committing to a socially and environmentally ethical product.

The event left me with a renewed respect for the small and large businesses that go out on the limb of insisting on high quality in not just their products, but in their practices and global impacts. The markets for fair trade and sustainable products, as nascent as they are, did not develop by accident. It has taken deliberate and tireless work on the part of concerned consumers, conscientious vendors, and innovative campaigners and certification organizations to build both demand and supply in these market spaces. The existence of these markets opens the possibility of ever broader expectations of fair and sustainable practices in industries and commodities around the world. As often comes up in my classes these days, the environment itself has no voice —and environmental concerns are often undervalued in business, law, and general society as a result. It takes committed people to study the forces at work in human markets and push for a vision of the global economy that is greener, fairer, and more sustainable than whatever makes the quickest profit in the short term. When those people see success, it’s a sweet moment for all of us.

Photos courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service

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