Setting The Bar is a documentary that follows some of the US’s best craft chocolate makers into the Peruvian Amazon on the hunt for ethical and sustainable cacao to make into chocolate. We dive into the genetic origin of cacao to see if we can trace chocolate back to its roots. Along the way we meet farmers, activists, chocolate nerds and a whole host of passionate craftspeople trying to save the Amazon through promoting heirloom cacao. Here’s why we think it’s important to eat ethically sourced chocolate.
1. Completing the Circle Between Farmer and Consumer
Knowing where your food comes from is the first step to understanding and appreciating it. The people who farm your cacao and take steps to preserve heirloom varieties should be respected as artisans as much as the chocolate makers themselves. Think of it like a wine varietal where a similar process on a very varied raw product can create such a different result, but often with a lot of similar tasting notes between origins. For example with wine, we know the land, climate, weather, harvest date (and the list goes on) can impact the flavors to an exponential degree.
2. Helping Protect the Rapidly Disappearing Rainforest
Predatory deforestation has decimated the Amazon rainforest. In the last 50 years around 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed, and other rainforests around the world are facing the same peril. By promoting an agroforestry system where cacao (which prefers to grow in shade) can grow under the forest canopy instead of destructive farming practices like raising cattle or growing African Palm, we can help to promote the preservation of these irreplaceable trees by creating a sustainable economic model which benefits everyone.
3. Preserving Indigenous Cultures
The many cultures that inhabit our planet should be celebrated. Many indigenous people groups that inhabit regions of Central and South America farm commodity-market cash crops. These crops, like cacao, have historically brought in very meager monthly wages for indigenous families. As these groups raise new generations, they often are forced to choose between sending their children away to cities for the chance at a more prosperous life and the preservation of their family’s language, culture and way of life. Working to raise the price for specialty and heirloom varieties of cacao makes being a cash-crop farmer a more economically sustainable choice for younger generations.
4. Helping Save Endangered, Ancient Genetics of Cacao
The genetic origin of cacao has been traced back to a specific area of the Peruvian Amazon. From these initial types of cacao the beans have spread throughout the world. While filming Setting the Bar we found types of cacao that had likely never been made into chocolate before. Without finding, identifying and replanting these cacaos they could potentially be cut down and lost forever. By buying ethically sourced craft chocolate you are also helping to promote genetic diversity and therefore making cacao less susceptible to disease caused by monoculture farming practices.
5. Good Cacao is Good for You!
New research says that bean to bar chocolate comprised of at least 70% cacao is one of the foods with the highest levels of antioxidants in the world. There is a number of other benefits as well including: reducing cholesterol (LDL) levels, helping skin, heart and brain function and reducing the risk of diabetes.
6. New and Interesting Flavor Profiles
The bulk chocolate market where most of your basic candy comes from wants high production, high yield and low flavor cacao to turn into chocolate. They want bang for their buck and a product which will taste the same year after year. To get this they use hybridized cacao pods which are huge, largely flavorless and burnt during processing to homogenize the flavors as much as possible. Craft chocolate makers work with more interesting and varied types of cacao to try to harness and celebrate the natural flavors and tasting notes of the beans. They do this by focusing on fermentation and drying; both of which need to be done within just a few days of harvesting so they end up with different styles of chocolate production.
7. Cacao; Not Coca
Farmers will go wherever there is money, and currently it is more economically sustainable to grow and maintain cacao so a lot of farmers are moving away from coca (largely for cocaine). Coca in the Amazon has been a major source of deforestation for years. By promoting heirloom cacao, chocolate makers can offer more money than the coca trade which can help preserve rainforest.
8. Fairer Prices for Farmers
Currently, two companies produce 70% to 80% of global processed cacao that becomes chocolate. Chocolate makers who directly buy high quality cacao can offer a much higher price (above market) and also a reliable price to indigenous farmers. During the filming of Setting the Bar, we met many farmers who couldn't understand why the world prices for cacao go up and down so unpredictably. Direct buying will help alleviate these volatilities.
So what can you do?
When buying chocolate in the store, look for direct trade labels whenever possible. The label means your chocolate makers traveled to the source and buy direct from the farmer or co-op, ensuring higher prices for farmers and more stability in the market. Also try to look for 70% cacao or above with as few ingredients as possible. Chocolate is awesome. It has the potential to save rainforest when consumers make smart buying decisions. Like all foods, do your best and have fun eating, exploring, comparing and learning more about where your food comes from. And to learn more about the struggle keep your eyes out for Setting The Bar: A Craft Chocolate Origin Story. For more info or to support the film check out the Kickstarter with perks (exclusive chocolate and experiences) from some of our favorite and most ethical direct trade chocolate makers from around the US: Raaka Chocolate, Parliament Chocolate, Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate, French Broad Chocolates and Dandelion Chocolate. Support the cause and help tell this important story by contributing here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/765315906/setting-the-bar-a-craft-chocolate-origin-story
Tim is passionate about telling stories to raise awareness of social and environmental issues and inspire people to take action. Tim started his career as a video journalist at Australia's largest newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, where he produced, directed, and edited a range of videos on social equality and human rights issues. After moving to San Francisco in 2011, Tim’s film work has focused on food and the environment working with NRDC, the Public Education Network, Robert Redford, Dave Eggers, Four Barrel Coffee and NOPA. Tim currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico pursuing his passion in the region with food and sustainability documentation.