The cocoa bean market is a pretty volatile one and prices can really fluctuate on a yearly basis. As many cocoa farmers have small holdings they are completely reliant on the sale of their cocoa beans for their income. This income is pretty low at the best of times so if world cocoa prices take a nosedive they can pretty much lose their livelihood for the year.
As the harvest has to sustain the whole family for the year this can be devastating. The aim of Fair trade is to provide a constant, fair price to cocoa farmers for their beans, enabling them to have a reliable income and to plan for their expenses and their futures.
Although the Fair trade scheme has existed for over forty years, it has only been on chocolate bar labels since the late 1980s. Despite this, until just a few years ago it was fairly difficult to get hold of Fair trade products and they were generally only stocked in specialist shops. Nowadays, however, there’s no excuse for not buying, or at least being aware of Fair trade chocolate.
Big manufacturers have begun to take notice of the demand for these products as consumers have become more aware of the conditions that some farmers live in, due to the poor prices paid for the beans. Obviously, it comes down to taste and I’m not suggesting you just buy Fair trade for ethical reasons. At the end of the day, the chocolate has to taste good, as well. However, I’d recommend giving it a go. It’s fairly obvious from the packaging if a bar of chocolate is Fair trade.
For a contrast I thought I’d now mention a South American producer. Despite their first forays into cocoa production, they’re not such prolific growers these days. Venezuela isn’t even the biggest South American producer (that accolade goes to Brazil) but I chose this country, as it’s renowned for its extremely high quality cocoa.
Venezuela did, at one time, claim the title of the world’s biggest cocoa producer but that was way back in the seventeenth century and a lot has changed since then. The beans grown are the Criollo variety and these are said to be the finest in the world. This makes Venezuelan cocoa extremely sought after by prestigious chocalatiers creating fine chocolate products.
It’s the South American countries generally that specialize in growing this variety and, as it’s not so easy to cultivate as other varieties it tends to be grown with less abundance. As there is a finite stock of beans in Venezuela, producers will often sell an entire harvest to one chocolatier directly, saving the hassle and price of going through a middle man. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of buyers, as the quality tends to speak for itself.
There has also been something of an organic revolution in Venezuela of late with a number of farmers opting to grow their trees organically. These beans can command a far higher price and, again, this appeals to the more high-end chocolatiers with an upmarket clientele. Now I love a good bar of chocolate but when desperation calls, I’m just as happy with a cheap brand from the corner shop as a box of handmade chocs!