Cocoa: why the European Union must act now to eliminate deforestation and child labour from the chocolate we love

30 November 2018

Written by: Julia Christian

Cocoa: why the European Union must act now to eliminate deforestation and child labour from the chocolate we love

European countries are the world’s largest importers of the cocoa beans whose production is devastating rainforests in West Africa and driving millions of children into child labour. To prevent this from happening, chocolate companies and NGOs are calling on the EU to regulate the cocoa supply chain, and momentum is growing. The EU should seize this opportunity to step up action against deforestation.  

The sweet taste and pleasure-inducing chemicals released by chocolate make it an enormously popular at Christmas and during the cold, dark winter months. Western Europeans are particularly drawn to it - with the Swiss, Germans, Irish and British heading the charts. The average German eats 8.5 kilogrammes of chocolate a year: about a tenth of their body weight. And European chocolate is beloved all over the world, from Belgian truffles to French pain au chocolat.This love for chocolate makes the European Union (EU) the world’s number one importer, manufacturer and consumer of cocoa, importing over 60 per cent of global cocoa beans.

But most Europeans are unaware of the extraordinary cost of their chocolate habit. 

The US NGO Mighty Earth has recently revealed that cocoa is devastating tropical rainforests, including some of the last habitats of the threatened chimpanzee. It is also responsible for driving millions of children into child labour, and keeping cocoa farmers and their families in a state of destitute poverty.

This injustice is compounded by how little of the chocolate industry’s $100 billion global annual profit finds its way into the farmers’ hands: on average a cocoa farmer receives 6% of the final sale price of a chocolate bar, while retailers and chocolate makers keep 80%. 

Even chocolate companies are asking the EU to help 

Recognising the weighty European responsibility for cocoa consumption —and the devastation that goes along with it — a growing number of chocolate companies and European policy-makers are now calling on the EU to act. 

At the April 2018 World Cocoa Conference in Berlin, the world’s biggest chocolate companies concluded that their voluntary commitments to end child labour and deforestation had “not led to sufficient impact”, and that there was a need to look at “potential regulatory measures by governments.” 

One tool mentioned was human rights due diligence, a process requiring companies to check their supply chains to make sure they are free from human rights and environmental abuses. chocolate

Such laws already exist at the national level in Europe, including France’s Due Diligence Law (2017) and the UK’s Modern Slavery Act (2015). Similar initiatives are being considered by the Netherlands and Switzerland, and in Finland companies and NGOs are working together to campaign for their own version. 

In addition, the French government called last month for an EU regulation on forest risk commodities like cocoa, palm oil, beef and soy, noting that that the cocoa sector “seemed ripe for a rapid adoption of this type of regulation.”

Even the German agriculture minister said earlier this year that “we need a clear regulation of what sustainable cocoa is”, and in November the German development minister spoke out in favour of such a regulation for all commodity imports. 

But unsurprisingly, companies are not keen on this proliferation of national initiatives, and instead are starting to call on the EU to pass a single regulation. 

At a European Parliament hearing in July 2018 and a smaller meeting in November 2018, there was a clear consensus from stakeholders including major chocolate manufacturers such as Mondelez, traders, certifiers, cocoa farmers’ representatives, NGOs and Members of the European Parliament that an EU regulation to address deforestation and human rights abuses in cocoa supply chains was urgently needed.

This led to a call for the European Commission to launch such a process. 

The European Commission must act  

This mounting support follows a decade of NGO campaigning to get the EU to act on the deforestation caused by its consumption, we have already waited too long and it is now time for the European Commission to act. 

And there is hope that this is finally starting to happen.

Franz Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, said in October that there was a limit to how far voluntary initiatives could solve the problems associated with imports like cocoa, and that it was pretty clear regulation would be needed.

Then in November, the European Commission announced it would publish in 2019 an official communication on “Stepping up EU Action against Deforestation and Forest Degradation”. 

It remains to be seen what will come out of this communication, but Fern and partner NGOs are calling on the European Commission to include a regulation on agricultural imports to make sure they are free from deforestation and human rights abuses. 

This would be a logical continuation of existing EU supply chain regulation on conflict mineralsillegal timber and fishing

Alongside this, the EU should also launch processes to support cocoa-producing countries to improve their own legal enforcement and governance, to ensure that forests are not illegally cut down and national laws on minimum working age are respected.

We call on the European Commission to launch such processes before the end of its mandate in May 2019.

Julia Christian is a campaigner leading on cocoa and deforestation at Fern, an NGO campaigning to make the EU work for people and forests.

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