Ask the Alchemist #8

What are Direct Trade beans and how is this different from Fair Trade and Organic Certified?

First off, that question is mixing the proverbial apples and oranges. How a bean is purchased has no relation to whether it is organic or not. The only relationship they share is that both have the potential for certification. With that out of the way, let’s talk briefly about the history of cocoa bean buying, trading, commodities, etc. and then we can move onto organic certification.

There have been, and still potentially are, some abhorrent practices of buying various commodities. Coffee, sugar…and cocoa. There are well documented cases of forced child and slave labor in the Ivory Coast. We, I believe, can agree this is not a good thing. So, steps were put in place to take a stand that these practices were not acceptable and “Fair Trade” was born. That took care of it right? If it is Fair Trade it is good, and if not, it’s bad. Right? Well, not really. Read on.

Fair trade. Fairly Traded. Direct Trade. Farm Gate. Ethically purchased. These, and many others are all terms you may see on cocoa and chocolate. Mostly it is the paper trail that is different, but what they all attempt to have in common is an underlying principal and commitment to making sure, to the best of our ability, that the people growing and producing the cocoa are being treated well and have not been taken advantage of economically.

Sounds great, right? Well, it is. In theory. But it is not cut and dry. I know many people that will ONLY buy Fair Trade certified beans. Good effort. But with that decision comes the following consequence. Many Fair Trade certifiers (Transfair USA for instance), for good reasons at the time, will only certify a co-op. Right now I have a handful of Venezuelan beans about to come in that were purchased directly from small villages and families that were previously slave villages. They have been paid over 50% over “Fair trade” prices (a price agreed to by BOTH parties) but because they have no infrastructure to be an “official” co-op (and don’t have the money required to pay the certifying agency for their registration) they cannot be called “Fair Trade”.

In my opinion those people and farms are what the whole program should be about. And a lot of other people feel the same way. That is why there are so many different terms for this. Because people saw that many people were falling through the cracks. Enter Direct Trade. Here, the seller is not using a broker as a middle man and is cutting through much of the red tape and making sure the people growing the cocoa are getting the money and support. But it is even fuzzy there. For instance, Chocolate Alchemy is working with Tisano. Tisano is on the ground in Venezuela working directly with the farmer. I can’t call that Direct Trade and I am not doing the “trading”. But every single effort has been put forth to make sure the farmers are being actively supported in a sustainable manner, both financially and ethically. There is no “certification” (because they are not a co-op, remember) but there is a commitment to having purchased these ethically. Ethically Purchased. In many ways, even more transparent and better than those with a certificate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Certification can be important. Believe it or not, people lie. Looking for that stamp of certification is easy and does help insure compliance. And it DOES give some concrete assurances. But NOT having a certification does not mean the opposite. Not having a certification does not mean people have been taken advantage of. It just means you have to dig a little deeper. Actually take the time to look at what you are buying, who you are buying from and make a decision whether you believe them.

I’ll step down from the FT soapbox for now, and touch briefly on Organic certification.

It’s a bit more clear. Not 100%, but much better. There are MANY steps in an organic certification, and many places (unlike a Fair Trade status) where it can be lost, often out of ignorance. Cross contamination is the #1 issue. But again, it’s not the end of the story. I’m going to go back to those Venezuela beans coming in. I’ve spoken a LOT with Tisano about this, and they have dug and investigated, and found that these farms could become Organic certified with an outlay of about $15,000. The point here is they could be certified. Meaning they have been following organic growing and processing techniques for at least 5 years. But there is little money or incentive to get the certification as it will bring them no better price for the cocoa (see above). Granted, this is an exception to the rule, but it is there. And one I’ve seen come up more than once. So you care about organic practices. And the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Good. Then DO look for the Organic seal, BUT if you don’t see it, you can again dig a little deeper and see the practices underneath. Because it’s those practices that really matter at the end of the day.

One final note about certification.  Although I do not push the fact, and maybe I should, Chocolate Alchemy is certified Organic by the USDA through the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Fair trade certified through both Transfair USA and IMO, so both paper trails do exist should you need them for your own edification or certification.

One Response to “Ask the Alchemist #8”

  1. I LOVE this post. I couldn’t have said it any better myself. I run into this ALL THE TIME with skin care. We source several ingredients from small farmers / villages through one of our manufacturing partners. People ask all the time about why we aren’t certified and you really hit the nail on the head. We are Green Business Certified and will hopefully become leaping bunny cert and once we get into body products Fair Trade cert. Anyway, thanks for this post. LOVE!

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