I have an unusual problem with reviewing this book: It is so intensely thought-provoking I'm having trouble just telling you what's actually in it. When I type, I start wildly drifting into my own tangents.
Let me start with this, which I never knew before: Most of the world's cocoa comes from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and nearly all of it is cultivated by hand on small, family-operated farms. It is the last of the global crops to be cultivated this way, and it represents the largest portion of each country's wealth. To buy chocolate - even those convenience-store staples from Hershey, Cadbury and Mars - is to directly connect with its harvesters in West Africa. After reading this book, I developed a respect and appreciation for the common Hershey's bar that I had until now reserved for the produce at my local farmer's market.
Orla Ryan is a former Reuters reporter who covered the cocoa industry in Ghana and Ivory Coast before taking leave to publish this book. Because I feel a tangent coming on, I'll be quick: This is an exceptionally readable, comprehensive, smart and objective book that smashes any assumptions you may have been making since I told you it was about poor African farmers harvesting most of the world's chocolate with hand tools. I recommend it to anyone interested in journalism (for the way it presents information that I suspect will leave the farmers, consumers and chocolatiers feeling they have been portrayed fairly) business and commodities trading (for the way it analyzes a whole commodity market from the soil to the store) and social activism (for ideas in how to identify and implement policy changes that will actually reach the poor, as this author has tried to do). This book might even teach activists who have to communicate with business leaders (and vice versa) how to find common ground.
And if you hate that guy from Coldplay, there's something in here for you, too.
And now for the tangent that I cannot hold back any longer: Empowered consumers have been led to believe - especially by the coffee industry, which gets some treatment in this book - if they just buy a fairly traded product, they can be part of the solution to end poverty, child exploitation, and corrupt regimes hoarding resources from their hardworking and deeply impoverished citizens. Orla Ryan suggests the solution is not ours to purchase. Just like with sharecropping in the United States after slavery, money generated by the sale of those cocoa pods immediately gets distributed to the moneylenders, fertilizer suppliers and landowners to whom the farmer is indebted. "Cocoa money supports millions of people, not just those who work the farm but also many who have never harvested a pod." Worse, this is a "cash crop" which (tangent!) is practically a misnomer: West Africans don't eat chocolate, so they can't sustain themselves with their own labor. Their money has to pay for all of the food they eat, since none of it comes from their own farm. No amount of money, even the $3 you just spent on that Dagoba bar at Whole Foods, is going to stay with the farmers and their families for long.
The solution, Ryan suggests, is to teach farmers how to get the most out of their land by cutting down older, less fertile trees, diversifying their crops and fighting disease and pests more efficiently. The Westerners in the best position to provide farmers the resources and motivation to implement these wildly counter-intuitiive methods of wealth creation? Not the consumers - it's Mars, Cadbury and Hershey, the folks who get nearly 100% of the beans from Ghana and the Ivory coast into our mouths and whose business would collapse if something happened to the cocoa supply. The moral of the story: keep buying those Wonka bars, because Big Chocolate actually comes across in this book sounding fairly socially responsible, though not on a large-enough scale to have a positive impact on all of its farmers.
But if anyone actually was able to wean the harvesters away from chocolate and into sustainable crops for their communities, there would probably be less chocolate grown overall. Prices would soar and chocolate bars would return to being a luxury rather than an essential element in my daily mental health regimen. By the end of the book, as Ryan alternated between staggering insights and brilliant suggestions for improving how chocolate is produced, I began to realize I need those chocolate farmers in Ghana more than they need me. The real price of humane chocolate may very well be one's willingness to get by with less of it.