By Lori Wysong
Elm Staff Writer
Hugo Francisco Chávez Ayala started out with a statistic as he addressed a crowd in Hynson Lounge. “Nine out of 10 people like chocolate, and the other one is lying.”
Chocolate may seem like something everyone can agree on, but as part of his National Food Day talk, presented by the Center for Environment and Society, the Student Environmental Alliance, and the Campus Garden, Chávez discussed the controversy surrounding its production.
Chávez left a career in academia to found Agrofloresta Mesoamérica, which works to sustainably produce cacao beans in his home country of Mexico.
His talk, “The Story Behind your Chocolate Bar: How sustainable is your choice?” focused on the history of cacao domestication in Mesoamerica, which spans about 4,000 years, as well as its economic and environmental implications in the present day.
One of the main problems this industry is facing is environmental degradation.
“In the history of agriculture there were two ways of domestication; one is the domestication of the crops…and the other one is the domestication of the system,” he said.
To combat this problem, he utilizes agroforestry. This approach imitates an ecosystem. In the case of cacao, the rainforest provides more biodiversity than mono-culture, which has an open field with a single crop.
According to Chávez, this strategy can reverse deforestation, leading to the return of native rainforest species, and enables the production of other crops such as maize. These extra crops can provide supplemental income for the farmers Agrofloresta Mesoamérica works with.
Cacao farmers in the 1980s received around 50 percent of the profits of the chocolate produced from his crop, he said. Now that number has dropped to between 3 and 4 percent.
His organization has also dealt with making cacao an economically sustainable crop for farmers to grow.
Chávez said they are now able to ship the cacao to companies focused on sustainability, because “there is a big, big, trend in the U.S. of making craft chocolate.” These craft brands include information about where and how they make their products.
With all this in mind, guests had the chance to taste some sustainably produced chocolate following the talk. They used their senses of sight, smell, and taste to savor the chocolate. One tasting group was asked to distinguish between the levels of darkness of different brands of chocolate. The other group had to guess different flavors of the same brand of chocolate, which included whiskey, mint, espresso, and hot pepper.
The location where the cacao was grown was another factor that impacted the flavor. In addition to cacao produced in the Americas, the largest producers are West African countries, such as Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Chávez warned that some large producers of cacao in countries throughout the world use child labor to grow their crops.
He urged the audience to consider their roles as consumers.
“Every day we make votes. We can vote for one type of industry, or we can vote for another type of industry. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re voting for when we buy a product,” he said.