When healthy sweets taste like chocolate instead of something bland, it becomes more enticing to invest in our personal wellness. We deserve to feel strong and healthy without the typical torture it often takes to get there.
Do you know that the global chocolate industry is estimated to be valued at $127.9 billion in 2022? These statistics are enough to show people’s love for chocolate. Chocolate is no doubt a family favorite, but it’s often full of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. But what if I told you there was a healthier chocolate option that was just as delicious?
Yes, you heard it right.
Dateolate is working to make healthier chocolate alternatives for families. Their chocolates are not only delicious but also nutritious.
You may have seen a new face at the 2022 Dallas Chocolate Festival: Vincent Scandura, national account executive at S. Walter Packaging.
At the same event, you also could have seen the “Spooky Collection” offered by Kate Weiser Chocolate in Dallas. This packaging series was recently recognized by GEA for excellence in the folded carton and specialty inks and finishes used category. It was an attention getter at a festival stocked with chocolate products galore, and it was all produced by S.W. Packaging.
Fine chocolate is one of the key markets served by S.W. Packaging, or SWP—other markets include food and beverage, fashion, beauty, jewelry, and hospitality. SWP is one of the companies that make up the S.W. Packaging Group, led by president and CEO Kurt Koloseike.
Inarguably one of the elite, game-changing chefs in the United States over the last 20 years or so, Keller helped make “farm to table” a thing, and reservations at his Napa Valley landmark restaurant (and Per Se in NYC) are hard to come by.
Now, the strength of TKRG is turning to supplying more chocolate couverture to chefs and restaurants.
The goal? Build the key agricultural sectors of cocoa and coffee in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru to directly improve the livelihoods of more than 120,000 farmers and throughout the cocoa value chain.
This process is being conducted with cooperation from INIAP (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias) at their facility in Ecuador and ANECACAO (Asociación Nacional de Exportadores de Cacao e Industrializados), a private sector non-profit dedicated to the well-being and development of Ecuador’s cocoa producing and exporting sector.
Tasting Chocolate: ANECACAO Sensory Training #1
Sensory training was provided by the MOCCA Project, Guittard Chocolates and Bioversity for INIAP and ANECACAO at the INIAP—Pichilingue facilities on March 10-11, 2022.
The objective of the Capacity Building for the Sensory Analysis of Cocoa in Ecuador project is to develop chocolate tasting sensory capacities for representatives of the public sector (INIAP) and private sector (ANECACAO).
Previously, equipment was delivered to the Cocoa Quality Laboratory at INIAP and samples of cocoa paste and liquor were processed following the protocols worked by the ISCQF working group (International Standards for the Evaluation of the Quality and Flavor of Cocoa) with the aim of aligning the operation of the equipment and having samples of cocoa paste for this training.
Reference samples from the CoEx were also used to collect data for the baseline of the participants and to know reference flavors by sample origins. Continuing with the objective of training and aligning quality standards, training using Excellencia Cocoa’s Sensory Evaluation Form for Cocoa and Chocolate Liquor.
The activities were developed by John Kehoe (Guittard Chocolates) and Dolores Alvarado (Bioversity) with FCIA’s Mey Choy Paz (Private Sector Liaison ) as facilitator and in-person coach.
This first training included 14 participants, two of whom participated virtually. The training started with a sensory analysis exercise to produce data that will serve as baseline information of the participants, and will serve to evaluate the capabilities of participants in this first sensory training.
An introduction to the ISCQF protocols was made by Alvarado of Bioversity to publicize the evolution and work done by this group. During the two days of training, cocoa tasting sessions were held with reference samples and the use of the Sensory Evaluation of Cocoa Excellence to explain the use of this file and explain descriptor references to participants. These sessions were developed by Mey Choy in person and John Kehoe virtually.
The success of this project is based on the action and joint work of collaborators who provide resources and knowledge for the implementation and correct operation of the laboratories, as well as sensory evaluation of cocoa liquor to value and highlight Ecuadorian cocoa—the starting point for the creation of the Panel of Tasters of Ecuador.
Tasting Chocolate: ANECACAO Sensory Training #2
The second sensory training was provided by the MOCCA Project, Guittard Chocolates and Bioversity for INIAP and ANECACAO at the INIAP Litoral Sur—Boliche facilities May 31-June 1, 2022.
As part of the project Capacity Building for the Sensory Analysis of Cocoa in Ecuador, the objective of which is to develop sensory capacities for representatives of the public sector (INIAP) and private sector (ANECACAO). In this second training, we worked with 25 participants who had received requests from their partners to join these training as indicated by the representative of ANECACAO.
The activities in this training were developed by John Kehoe, Alvarado, Nubia Martinez (Member of CoEx) and Mey Choy Paz. The event kicked off with a presentation by Nubia Martinez on the Sensory Evaluation of Cocoa Liquor and the ISCQF evaluation sheet.
Next, Alvarado presented the results of the baseline exercise performed by the participants of the first sensory training; Prior to this, the results were shared with each of them individually so they could visualize the development of the evaluations and offer feedback on possible improvements.
The first tasting session was carried out with three Cocoa of Excellence reference samples to calibrate and compare the scores of the participants against samples previously evaluated by the CoEx panel. The second tasting session consisted of six samples of Cocoa Liquor prepared by the participants of the first training. Cocoa beans EET484 provided by INIAP Pichilingue were distributed. The objective of this exercise was to see the differences in the flavors of the same type of cocoa by processing in different equipment and with different parameters (as they work in their own laboratories). It was a valuable exercise because they were able to visualize differences in taste.
On the second day of training, we started tasting one of the samples of the EET484 analyzed the day before to calibrate the participants. After that, the exercise began with the nine samples of the intermediate line to all the participants. This data was sent directly to Alvarado to process and gauge participants’ progress. The last tasting chocolate session was carried out on samples of iniaP clones 800 and 801 and on three samples from different sources to evaluate the differences in flavors.
Continued training in tasting chocolate is being supplied to the participants with samples of cocoa paste via Guittard for the third and last training session coming up in September, 2022. Also, an introduction to the ISCQF protocols was conducted by Alvarado to publicize the accomplishments and evolution of this hard-working group.
The success of this project is based on the action and joint work of the collaborators of the project, who will provide resources and knowledge for the implementation and correct operation of the laboratories and sensory evaluation of the cocoa liquor to value and highlight Ecuadorian Cocoa—the starting point for the creation of the Panel of Tasters of Ecuador.
ANECACAO Sensory Training Workshop: Evaluation of Cocoa Quality and Taste Per International Standards
This workshop was held 100% in person June 7-10, 200. Alvarado of Bioversity/CIAT oversaw carrying it out together with members of the Network of Cocoa Tasters of Peru in the Specialized Workshop for the Strengthening of Capacities for the Evaluation of the Quality and Flavor of Cocoa aligned with International Standards—ISCQF.
The tasting chocolate protocols worked to date with the ISCQF were presented, as well as the Sensory Evaluation Form of Cocoa of Excellence, which will soon be used in Peru to have a common language with members of the cocoa value chain at an international level.
Although Peru has worked on a sensory evaluation sheet, which they have been using since 2016, as members of the Network of Tasters they want to use the Cocoa of Excellence file to be aligned with international standards.
Despite its “forest-friendly” reputation, cacao farming is actually causing deforestation in some parts of the world. Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse that trend. This is what we’ve been working on in Ecuador.
We’re using cacao trees to help restore forest on degraded agricultural land. It’s one element of a holistic regenerative agroforestry project that combines cacao trees with a diversity of tall native shade trees, fruit trees, and other food crops like bananas and plantains.
This approach gives a boost to farmer incomes and local food security, removes CO2 from the atmosphere, and improves the overall health of the ecosystem. It’s an example of how businesses, conservationists, and local farmers can join forces to help regenerate the forest rather than cut it down.
The eco-friendliness of cacao farming entirely depends on where and how the cacao trees are planted. In the worst of cases, people cut down a native forest to make way for a monoculture plantation of cacao. In the context of both biodiversity and climate change, this is a bad outcome. Native forests store 4x as much carbon and 35x more species than cacao monocultures.
And yet, clearing native forests to plant monocultures is how most new cacao plantations are created throughout the tropics. A lot of trees are being cut down in the name of chocolate.
Regenerative agroforestry, on the other hand, is a different story. That’s what this article is about to explore.
Cacao Monoculture (left) vs Cacao Agroforestry (right)
Cacao & Agroforestry
Cacao trees are naturally adapted to survive and thrive in the understory of the tropical forest. In other words, they grow well in the shade of bigger trees. Therein lies the advantage of cacao farming in the realm of tropical forest restoration.
It bears mentioning that some high-yield/low-quality cacao cultivars (namely, CCN-51) have been bred to prefer full sunlight. Most heirloom varieties, however, actually need to grow in the shade, especially when they’re young.
Cacao trees can be planted in combination with a diverse array of other food-producing trees and native trees. That’s what agroforestry is—it’s an agricultural method that grows crops in the form of a forest.
Regenerative agroforestry uses this principle as a mechanism for forest restoration. One of the benefits of this approach is a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Other happy byproducts include soil conservation, watershed protection, and biodiversity preservation.
The cacao that is harvested from a regenerative agroforestry system is called Regenerative Cacao.
Agroforestry: Cultivating crops in the form of a forest.
Cacao Agroforestry: Agroforestry that includes cacao trees grown in the shade of taller trees.
Regenerative Agroforestry: Using agroforestry as a mechanism to restore forest on degraded land.
Regenerative Cacao: Cacao that is harvested from a regenerative agroforestry system.
To’ak and TMA
Regenerative agroforestry is a strategy we’ve been experimenting with for over a decade and a half. At this point, I should explain that when I say “we,” I mean both TMA and To’ak. I co-founded TMA in 2007 with a few like-minded conservationists. Five years later, I co-founded To’ak with a few like-minded entrepreneurs.
Both organizations have been working together on cacao genetics and agroforestry dating back to 2018, when TMA and To’ak jointly created a genetic bank of 100% pure Ancient Nacional cacao trees in the Jama-Coaque Reserve. The genetic bank is our collective effort to prevent the extinction of one of the most legendary heirloom cacao varieties on earth, and to nurse it back to health.
Our regenerative cacao project is the next step in that process: it’s the part where we distribute the seedlings of this historic cacao variety to local farmers as a mechanism for forest restoration.
But this story has its roots in earlier efforts—some of which didn’t work well.
The Failures Before We Got It Right
Coastal Ecuador, which is part of a global biodiversity hotspot, is also one of the most deforested ecosystems in South America. Much of the forest has been converted to cattle pasture and slash-and-burn corn plantations.
TMA has been experimenting with different ways to encourage reforestation among local landholders for over fifteen years, with mixed results. We ultimately learned that it’s very difficult to convince people to plant trees unless those trees will provide them with food, income, or both.
Simply handing out cacao seedlings to farmers, with a vague promise to help them find a good buyer, also does not work well. (We tried it. Doesn’t really work.) Directly planting cacao trees on people’s properties (with their help) doesn’t work either; once the trees are planted, landholders may not nurture them to maturity unless there is a strong incentive to do so. That’s why simply “planting trees” is usually not an effective way to truly reforest land.
Eventually, we learned our lesson. We identified four main obstacles that were impeding farmers from reforesting their own land:
Lack of seedlings and other basic equipment, like fencing (easy to solve)
Lack of water access (more difficult to solve, but surmountable)
Lack of market access for tree crops (much more difficult than most people think)
The opportunity cost of other activities like cattle ranching (this is where most projects fail)
Our approach with this project was to systematically overcome each of these obstacles.
Making Agroforestry the Path of Least Resistance
The first obstacle—lack of seedlings and equipment—was the easiest to overcome. We supply every farmer with all the seedlings and equipment that he or she will need to reforest their land. Some of the seedlings are sourced from the genetic bank of pure Ancient Nacional cacao, spearheaded by To’ak and implemented by TMA. MOCCA also provided key funding for creating and maintaining a local nursery and clonal garden of high-quality cacao trees. TMA also supply farmers with fencing, access to mechanical weed-whackers (a massive boon to labor efficiency), and organic fertilizer.
Overcoming the second obstacle—water access—was critical. A reforestation project is worthless if the trees don’t survive the dry season. In most parts of the tropics, where the year is divided into wet and dry seasons, some level of irrigation is usually necessary for agriculture to be productive. So we built irrigation systems for every single farmer, each of whom helped with the installation and shared 50% of the costs.
The third and fourth obstacles—market access and opportunity cost—are the most difficult to overcome. This is where most well-intentioned NGOs, government institutions, and chocolate companies fail in their effort to promote sustainable cacao farming.
“Show Me the Money!”
As many cacao farmers will readily admit, planting cacao trees is the easy part. The hard part is finding a buyer willing to pay fair prices. This is where To’ak’s role becomes indispensable.
Standard farmgate prices for wet cacao are punishingly low throughout the tropics, including in Ecuador—where prices usually hover in the range of $0.20 to $0.30 per pound for wet cacao. At those prices, the rate of return for most farmers—on both investment and effort—is negative.
Most farmers are rational economic actors. If there is no economic benefit to planting trees—be it cacao or any other species—why do it? For beauty and the good of nature? For anyone who is struggling to feed their family, those lofty reasons usually aren’t enough. The rational economic response to this conundrum is best captured by that famous line from the movie Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money!”
To’ak has long taken pride in paying cacao farmers the highest prices in the industry—ranging from $0.80 to $2.00 per pound, depending on the Cru. This is 200% to 800% above the standard farmgate price. Check out To’ak’s Transparency Report for more details.
This same pay scale was offered to farmers in TMA’s regenerative agroforestry program, and it immediately captured the interest of nearly every farmer in the area. But here’s the catch: these prices are only paid to farmers who plant cacao trees in combination with a specific and diverse array of other trees.
The price premium is explicitly structured as an incentive to restore forest on degraded land. Monocultures don’t count!
Winning the Battle of Opportunity Costs
Another classic pitfall in many regenerative agroforestry projects is the failure to account for opportunity costs. It’s not enough for agroforestry to generate a positive return for farmers. The revenue stream from agroforestry needs to exceed the revenue stream from whichever activity the farmer is currently performing on his or her land. Otherwise, “business as usual” will likely continue.
In this part of Ecuador, the two most common land uses are cattle ranching and slash-and-burn corn cultivation—both of which are also the two primary drivers of deforestation. We calculated the net revenue stream for both of these “business as usual” activities and then compared this to the revenue stream for regenerative agroforestry.
As you will see, the benefit of a “direct trade” relationship with a premium cacao buyer like To’ak is a critical piece of the economic puzzle.
A comparison of net revenue streams for “business as usual” activities versus regenerative agroforestry
As the table shows, regenerative agroforestry does ultimately win out against both cattle ranching and corn cultivation, as well as coffee cultivation. But there’s another problem: it takes four or five years before cacao trees begin generating revenue, whereas cattle and corn can generate returns in the first year.
One solution to this problem is to intercrop cacao trees with banana and plantain crops, which produce food and income within twelve months. But this still doesn’t entirely erase the short-term deficit. Considering most families in this region live month-to-month, short-term revenue takes precedence over long-term revenue.
This is where the mechanism known as “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) comes into play.
The Clincher: PES Payments
Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) are financial incentives offered to landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide some sort of ecological service—for example, planting trees that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
To learn more, check out TMA’s article that explains the concept of Payments for Ecosystem Services, which we believe to be a veritable game-changer in the realm of tropical forest restoration.
In the context of this specific PES project, TMA pays farmers $4,500 per hectare over five years to convert their own deforested land into a regenerative forest that features shade-grown cacao trees. This payment immediately increases farmers’ earnings by 44% relative to slash-and-burn corn cultivation and over 300% relative to cattle ranching. This is enough to convince farmers to shift their activities away from degenerative agriculture and toward regenerative agroforestry.
In addition to the $4,500 in direct payments to farmers, an additional $2,900 is invested in each hectare, including all equipment and seedlings, site visits, technical assistance, and monitoring. The total investment is $7,400/hectare ($3,000/acre).
A comparison of annual earnings per hectare for farmers at To’ak farmgate prices versus standard farmgate prices with and without PES income
This payment is not a subsidy or a welfare payment. It’s a payment in exchange for the service of removing carbon from the atmosphere and preserving biodiversity in a global conservation hotspot.
It also bears mentioning that the PES payments only last for five years. It is a short-term measure designed to bridge the gap until farmers begin to generate an independent revenue stream through the sale of cacao, banana, and other tree crops that their regenerative agroforestry parcels produce. You can learn more by checking out our other article “Why Paying Farmers for Reforestation is a Game-Changer.”
Planting Design & Ecological Impact
The species mix and planting densities for our regenerative agroforestry program are quite specific. We created this design ourselves, informed by fifteen years of agroforestry trial and error in this particular ecosystem and in these same communities.
Here’s the breakdown of trees and crops, per hectare:
80 native shade trees, across 11+ species
40 large fruit trees, across 5+ species
600+ cacao trees, using 12 different cultivars (including 100% pure Ancient Nacional cacao)
300+ banana and plantain plants
This means that each hectare contains a minimum of 720 trees across at least 17 different species, in addition to a healthy dose of the region’s most important staples: banana and plantain. We estimate that each hectare planted according to this design, on land that was previously deforested, removes 191 tons of CO2 over the 30-year project life, net.
Human & Economic Impact
The first round of farmers started planting in January of 2021 and the second round put their seedlings into the ground in January of 2022. This is still a relatively small-scale project. We hope to keep scaling it up. Thus far, here’s the impact:
77 acres (31 hectares) of land is being restored to forest
37 families are participating
16,320 trees have been planted across 20 species
On average, this project boosts overall family income by 50%
Once these cacao trees reach maturity, starting in 2024-2025, the farmers currently enrolled in this program will likely produce about 40 tons of wet cacao per year. This equates to roughly 13 metric tons of high-quality dark chocolate each year. In the process, it helps restore the forest in one of the most deforested ecosystems in South America.
At a recent seminar sponsored by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, one of Cuna de Piedra’s founders, Enrique Pérez, described the brand’s somewhat inauspicious product launch at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in November 2019. The brand had just been conceived of in March of that same year, and the team behind Cuna de Piedra had only received the wrappers for their bean-to-bar chocolates the night before the event. Pérez was already unsure that the brand’s value would resonate with U.S. consumers, consisting mainly of single origin, 2-ingredient, Mexican dark chocolate: “we don’t have creamy chocolate; we don’t have chocolate and hazelnut, etc.” he says.
When the team initially found that not a lot of people at the festival seemed interested in trying their samples, they thought their fears might be confirmed, if it weren’t for one lady who expressed a lot of enthusiasm for what they were doing and wanted to taste. Pérez describes her reaction: “‘You know what? This is incredible and I love it,’ she said, “but I cannot taste the Tabasco…’”
“People weren’t trying our samples,” Pérez explains, “because they saw the word Tabasco and thought, ‘hot sauce.’’ Five of seven of Cuna de Piedra’s chocolate bars (at the time) had the word Tabasco on them, as the cacao beans are sourced from the Mexican state of Tabasco. “After that we started saying out loud every 5 minutes, ‘this is cacao from Tabasco, not with Tabasco,’” and eventually a crowd gathered.
While it might have seemed inauspicious at the time, it is actually a fitting launch for Cuna de Piedra, as it highlights precisely the challenge that the brand was built to overcome: a misperception of what it means to be hecho en México.
CHOCOLATE WITH A MISSION FOR MEXICO
“We wanted to create something that was an homage to our land, to our people, to our biodiversity, and to Mexican cacao,” Pérez says. His particular lens was that of a food consultant, who had years of experience working with brands and producers on matters of innovation, quality, and safety. One thing that struck him as a matter in need of serious rebranding was the idea, both inside and outside of Mexico, that Mexican-made products were not naturally of high quality.
He cited a 2016 study conducted by public brand strategy firm Vianovo on the “Perception of Mexico’s Brand in the U.S.,” that found that not only did U.S. consumers not have a high degree of confidence in Mexican products but that its overall perception of Mexico was one rooted in crime and corruption. Perez, who partnered with designer and brand strategy developer Vicky González, wanted to make a difference, even if on a small scale, and create something that Mexicans could be proud of.
“We wanted to create a remarkable product that was not only delicious, but that also had an outstanding design,” says Pérez. “Even in Mexico, people place a higher value in products that come from outside the country, because they are considered to be of a higher quality and more worth spending money on.”
Along with González, they recruited Jorge Llanderal, a former tech worker turned chocolatier, whose family business Chocosolutions provides chocolate supplies and equipment to restaurants, who would help produce the first, Mexican-made, bean-to-bar chocolates for Cuna de Piedra.
Part of Pérez and González’s original mission was also to create a brand that had “human sense,” that raised the quality of life for everyone involved in the making of their chocolate, beginning with the cacao farmers themselves. Doing so meant removing the distribution piece that exists between the cacao farmers and the chocolatiers, partnering directly with growers, and paying them above market price for their cacao beans.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history and culture related to cacao,” says Pérez. “So we envisioned a brand to make 100% Mexican chocolate with Mexican cacao.” This also meant going to the source: a small region called Soconusco in the state of Chiapas, believed to be the birthplace of cacao in Mexico, from which the practice of making chocolate spread. In addition to a Cooperativa Rayan in Soconusco, Cuna de Piedra sources cacao from several growers and cooperatives from numerous Mexican states including Tabasco and Oaxaca
A STORY OF MEXICO
In addition to its collection of various Mexican dark chocolate bars, the Cuna de Piedra team also wanted to bring light to other important aspects of Mexico’s culture and gastronomy, especially heirloom crops. Read more by clicking here.>>