From Bean to Bar to a Better Food System

Written by Paulina Golikova
Fall 2017

We often think of chocolate as a symbol of love, indulgence, and celebration rather than one of suffering and destruction. There’s a huge gap between how most big name chocolate companies market their products to us and the circumstances of cacao production on the ground. I would venture to say that the vast majority of chocolate consumers in the world have no idea how their chocolate is made, let alone how its primary ingredients—cacao and sugar—are grown. Similarly, many cacao farmers never get to experience the final product into which the fruits of their labor are destined to be transformed.

The contemporary social and environmental harms perpetuated in the name of Big Chocolate (that is, Nestlé, Hershey’s, Mars and the like) are rooted in a dark history of colonialism and slavery. While most cacao producers receive severely depressed prices for their product, others are subject to the horrors of human trafficking and forced labor. Meanwhile, primary forests and protected parks are being clear-cut on a massive scale for the sake of cacao production. But there is an ecosystem of entities from throughout the supply chain including producers, distributors, chocolate makers, scholars, and others, all working together to address these problems.

My community partner this semester, an organization called Yellow Seed, is part of that ecosystem. It defines itself as “a conscious trade network where cacao farmers, buyers, and members work together to support equity, ecological conservation, and community resilience.” Yellow Seed is a small non-profit that has built a digital community marketplace with the goal of facilitating connections to ethical trade opportunities between stakeholders of all types in the cacao-chocolate industry. It is designed to promote the exchange of not only cacao but also of stories, feedback, and data—all of which are essential to fostering inter-industry collaboration and care. Yellow Seed is working to provide tools that stimulate synergies across the supply chain so as to expedite and expand the potential of designing addressing challenges and designing solutions.

My role as Yellow Seed’s intern has revolved around marketing, social media, and storytelling. I have been responsible for maintaining and growing engagement on our social media feeds, putting together newsletters, as well as writing and copyediting blog posts. In some ways, my learning experience with Yellow Seed has exemplified the oft-cited saying, “the more you see, the less you know.” As a whole, the cacao-chocolate industry is steeped in fractal-like complexity—the closer you look, the more it is evident that the issues faced in this part of the food system are incredibly difficult to solve. This is an especially humbling realization to have after studying food systems for the last three years on an overwhelmingly theoretical level.

Yellow Seed mostly works with the specialty cacao-craft chocolate market, which is a small but burgeoning portion of the larger industry. The opportunity to study this market has been deeply inspiring given its dedication to collaboration, transparency, and sustainability—and not just in a superficial, greenwash-y way. This is a group of people who recognize the urgency of the need to change the way we produce, trade, and value food.

Working with Yellow Seed has given me hope that sustainable business is not always an oxymoron—that self-regulation/governance and collective accountability through transparency might at least be the beginning of an antidote to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. This hope is partly inspired by witnessing and working with more feminine leadership styles which promote non-linear, adaptive, and collaborative processes of design, experimentation and development. It is also encouraging to know that creativity is valued in this line of work, especially as I have also been exploring the realms of social practice art and human-centered design as avenues for the pursuit of social, environmental, and economic change. My hope is to at some point design and implement a project of my own that similarly draws on creative processes to develop solutions to issues we face in the food system, and this experience has offered me some of the confidence and the skills I will need to do so.

Going forwards, my hope is that Yellow Seed can dig deeper into finding ways of centering the voice of farmers so that their needs and interests are clearly represented. Though my studies of the food system may not be deep, they are broad and that breadth of perspective offers insight into patterns. It is clear to me that the most successful efforts to support sustainable agriculture are guided by the focus on listening to and understanding the work of those who are on the ground. The effort to heal the food system must be a grassroots movement, and there is nothing more “grassroots” than farming itself.

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