Monocrops, Poverty, and The Ethical Shortcomings of Global Capitalism

Julia Naumowicz

10 May 2017

Chocolate, Culture, and The Politics of Food

Monocrops, Poverty, and The Ethical Shortcomings of Global Capitalism

When Christopher Columbus first sailed west to find a new passage to India, it was by design that the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria were to instead take harbor in South America.  Columbus’s goal was to circumvent the Silk Road, which was an ancient network of trade routes connecting the whole of the Asian continent to Europe and Africa[1].

The Silk Road of Columbus’ era

By forging a direct naval route, Columbus hoped to secure for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of what is now Spain access to the means of producing and trading goods that had been cut off to Europe by the Ottoman Empire.  Instead, Columbus, and subsequent Conquistadores, returned to Spain with cargo holds stuffed with new and exotic plants, animals, and people.  It was not until after Columbus’s voyage that the value of cacao to the Indigenous Americans was revealed, and it would be nearly one hundred years before cacao became commonplace in the Western world.

The phenomenon of chocolate, as first a religious elixir, then transported to Europe as a medicine before becoming a widespread delicacy of the European aristocracy, is one of strange dichotomies.  As mentioned above, the French aristocracy kept a special place on their banquet tables for small chocolate statues or chocolate served in quaint moulds, and the Italians were renowned for their love of chocolate in their cooking, as evidenced by pappardelle and chocolate polenta which was popular in the eighteenth century.[2]  (Ironically, however, it was in the chocolate houses of the 1600s, turned coffee houses by the reign of Louis XVI, which became the gathering places of the overworked proletariat who overthrew the French aristocracy in 1789.)  With the Industrial Revolution came newer and less costly technologies for preparing chocolate, and by the mid nineteenth century the chocolate bar was born.

But it is with cacao as a monocrop that the phenomenon of global capitalism can be analyzed in its entirety within a single industry.  From its role as a religious elixir and a beverage specifically preserved for the Mayan and Aztec elite to an ordinary Hershey bar, the evolution of cacao as a cash crop exemplifies the collaborative nature of Imperialism and Capitalism as well as it places in stark contrast the realities of global poverty.

Cacao is a notoriously difficult plant to grow.  According to Michael Coe, co-author of The True History of Chocolate:

… With very few exceptions, it refuses to bear fruit outside of a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator.  Nor is it happy within this band of the tropics if the altitude is so high as to result in temperatures that fall below 60℉ or 16℃.  If the climate is one with a pronounced dry season, irrigation is a necessity, for cacao demands year-round moisture; if it does not get it, it sheds its otherwise evergreen leaves in a protest that is described as looking like autumn in New England.  Poor growing conditions make it even more susceptible than it normally is to the multitude of diseases which attack it, including pod rots, wilts, and fungus-produced, extraneous growths called “witches’ brooms.”  Squirrels, monkeys, and rats steal the pods to enjoy the pleasant-tasting white pulp which envelops the seeds that they contain, but they avoid the bitter-tasting seeds themselves (although they may disseminate them)[3].


This is an extremely narrow band of growing conditions, which means in turn an extremely narrow band of countries and regions capable of cultivating the cacao tree.

Côte d’Ivoire is one such nation in which cacao can be cultivated, and it has been a world leader in cacao production since the 1970s.  Originally a French colony, the small African nation declared independence under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny.  In the 1960s, Houphouët-Boigny made the famous speech in which he guaranteed that “… he would turn the jungle into an Eden, and that everyone who lived there would enjoy the fruits of their own labor.”[4]  It was by creating and cultivating huge cacao plantations that Côte d’Ivoire fueled its economy, and, after his death in 1993, it was cacao which has caused the greatest turmoil in the small African nation.  By 1998, the trafficking of children to the cacao farms of Côte d’Ivoire was an international story.[5]

Despite public outcry in the United States in the early 2000s, the public quickly forgot why they were angry in the first place, and the Harkin-Engel Protocol was written up by large chocolate corporations and the congressmen who are in their pockets.  According to Slave Free Chocolate, a non-governmental organization that campaigns to end child slavery in the cocoa industry, which directly quotes Wikipedia on their website, the Harkin-Engel Protocol covers six major points:

The parties agreed to a six-article plan:

  1. Public statement of the need for and terms of an action plan—The cocoa industry acknowledged the problem of forced child labor and will commit “significant resources” to address the problem.
  2. Formation of multi-sectoral advisory groups—By 1 October 2001, an advisory group will be formed to research labor practices. By 1 December 2001, industry will form an advisory group and formulate appropriate remedies to address the worst forms of child labor.
  3. Signed joint statement on child labor to be witnessed at the ILO—By 1 December 2001, a statement must be made recognizing the need to end the worst forms of child labor and identify developmental alternatives for the children removed from labor.
  4. Memorandum of cooperation—By 1 May 2002, Establish a joint action program of research, information exchange, and action to enforce standards to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. Establish a monitor and compliance with the standards.
  5. Establish a joint foundation—By 1 July 2002, industry will form a foundation to oversee efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. It will perform field projects and be a clearinghouse on best practices.
  6. Building toward credible standards—By 1 July 2005, the industry will develop and implement industry-wide standards of public certification that cocoa has been grown without any of the worst forms of child labor.[6]


Thus the actual problem of child slavery and widespread poverty in West Africa was able to be completely ignored.  So long as corporations could squirm their way into the vague definition of “certifying that cocoa has been grown without any of the worst forms of child labor”, whether or not children should have to work at all was seemingly not up for debate.

As of 2015, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States was 1.3 trillion dollars.  That is, $1,300,000,000,000.  From the website Brain Decoder , “Now, can you imagine how [much money] that is? Probably not. The way our brains are set up, truly understanding that vast a number is pretty much impossible.

‘Our cognitive systems are very much tied to our perceptions,” said Daniel Ansari, a researcher at the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Western University in Canada. “The main obstacle is that we’re dealing with numbers that are too large for us to have experienced perceptually.’”[7]

So, for our reference, here is a handy infographic:

What this is to highlight is that $1.3 trillion is an unimaginably large number.  In reality it is a number that only exists in computers, because there has never been 1.3 trillion of anything large enough for the human eye to count in one place.  There are nearly one-hundred seventy-three times more dollars just in the United States than there are humans in the world as of 2017, and none of it has an actual value.[8]

For some more mind-bogglingly large numbers, There are more than 2.3 million documented homeless children in the United States as of 2014, and that number can only have gotten larger in the subsequent years.[9]  795 million people in the world live without enough food to eat.[10]

The Gross Domestic Product per capita as of 2015 in Côte d’Ivoire is $1,398.69, and trailing far behind it are neighboring Mali ($744.35) and Burkina Faso ($613.04).  Comparatively, the GDP per capita in the United States is $55,836.79.

((NOTE: The difference between these four countries’ GDP per capita is so staggering that in order to show the reader what the GDP per capita for Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso are the United States initially had to be omitted entirely.))

To put that into perspective, the average Ivorian is expected to survive on what the average American makes in a little over a week.

It is difficult to fathom, then, how cocoa sells for roughly one dollar per pound,[11]  and the average chocolate bar costs about one dollar,[12] how Michele Buck, CEO of Hershey Corporation as of March 2017, can justify making almost ten million dollars11  every year from the profit of chocolate sales.  In the same country where one in five children goes without food, we waste 165 billion dollars—or 133 billion pounds—of food each year, and often grocery stores purposely sabotage their products or lock their dumpsters so that starving people with no money are unable to take their garbage.  (In fact, as of 2016 France is the only country in the world that has written a law to prevent grocery stores from wasting food in such a fashion[13].)

It is difficult, when viewed from a rational perspective, to truly understand why it is that there are people dying from lack of a high enough number attached to their name.  It is confusing that for every homeless person in the United States there are about five homes standing empty[14], because someone doesn’t have a high enough number to have adequately “earned” the privilege of having shelter, which is a human necessity[15].  It is difficult to fathom how, when every human needs water and food to live, we have devised a system where in order to survive one must prove that they deserve the opportunity to not starve to death by producing valueless numbers for other people who have higher numbers attached to their names.  It is difficult for this writer to understand how, in a world of driverless automobiles and a medical cure for Hepatitis C at our fingertips, there are children who have been bought and sold to produce a food item that they will never in their lives get the chance to taste.



Works Cited


[2] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “Chocolate in the Age of Reason.” The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 218-19. Print.

[3] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 19. Print.

[4] Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate. St Lucia, Qld.: U of Queensland, 2008. 4. Print.

[5] Off, Carol. “The Disposables.” Bitter Chocolate. St Lucia, Qld.: U of Queensland, 2008. 130-31. Print.

[6] “Iii.d.8 Ilo Convention (No 182) Concerning The Prohibition And Immediate Elimination Of The Worst Forms Of Child Labour.” International Law & World Order: Weston’s & Carlson’s Basic Documents (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

[7] Baggaley, Kate. “Why We Can’t Grasp Very Large Numbers.” Braindecoder. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.

[8] “Lexicon.” Fiat Money Definition from Financial Times Lexicon. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.

[9] Business. “One in 30 American Children Is Homeless, Report Says.” NBCUniversal News Group, 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 16 May 2017.

[10] “Know Your World: Facts About World Hunger & Poverty.” The Hunger Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.

[11] “Cocoa Futures End of Day Settlement Price.” Cocoa Beans – Daily Price – Commodity Prices – Price Charts, Data, and News – IndexMundi. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.

[12]  “U.S. Candy and Chocolate Average Price by Segment, 2016 L Statistic.” Statista. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.

[13] Dvorsky, George. “Why the US May Never Pass a Food Waste Law Like France.” Gizmodo., 05 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 May 2017.

[14] Desk, MintPress News. “Empty Homes Outnumber The Homeless 6 To 1, So Why Not Give Them Homes?” MintPress News. N.p., 02 July 2015. Web. 16 May 2017.

[15] “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 May 2017. Web. 16 May 2017.

[16] The Dark Side of Chocolate: Child Trafficking and Illegal Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry. YouTube, n.d. Web. 16 May 2017.


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