This Valentine's Day, millions of well-meaning Americans will again be buying roses and chocolates for their loved ones, not realizing their gifts are likely tainted by toxic pesticides, child slavery and labor exploitation. Education about organic/fair trade chocolate and flowers could help consumers make simple, satisfying choices that benefit communities around the world.
Chocolate has a dark side. More than 40 percent comes from Africa's Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), where the International Labor Organization and the U.S. State Department report widespread instances of child slavery and labor exploitation. Hundreds of thousands of kids, who never get to enjoy chocolate, are handling dangerous pesticides and clearing fields with machetes.
The chemical aspect of conventional chocolate production affects us all. Sun-grown chocolate, like coffee, destroys the canopy of shade that controls pests and weeds naturally. Full-sun crops require constant, massive chemical blitzing. Workers are the first but not the only ones exposed to these pesticides and insecticides, many of which are banned here yet "imported" back in the chocolate. Communities suffer from poisoned air and water. Sun growing destroys habitat for near-extinct birds, as well as a complex ecosystem crucial to clean air, pest control and indigenous medicines. Plus, most of our chocolate buying supports a system that underpays cocoa farmers. To survive, communities level rainforests to make cattle pasture, furthering the permanent loss of precious biodiversity.
Anything rosy here? Most Valentine's Day flowers come from Colombia and Ecuador, where toxic pesticides sprayed on cut flowers are poisoning the land as well as workers. Florists who handle non-organic flowers often develop skin diseases; workers in the flower industry commonly suffer from pesticide poisoning. Worst of all, many of these chemicals are known carcinogens. We can't distance ourselves enough: Agri-chemicals are showing up in mothers' breast milk the world over.
But flowers and chocolate do make great Valentine's Day gifts -- as long as they're organic and fair-trade. The above-described status quo is so tragic because it's easy to avoid the chemicals and the human rights violations, with virtually no extra effort.
There are more than a dozen superb brands of organic and fair trade chocolate at your local stores. Free of chemicals, organic chocolate is decadently delicious. It costs a bit more than cheap mainstream brands (which, aside from pesticides and slave labor, are full of corn syrup and additives). But organic chocolate doesn't cost more than many upscale (yet
conventional) designer brands you find at gourmet shops and department stores. Why pay a premium for fancy confections with no conscience? Organic flower shops online will ship anywhere. It's a convenient way to send flowers that your recipient can sniff without inhaling chemicals. These are not frivolous concerns. Such products are big business at holiday times and where you funnel your gift-buying bucks can make the difference between toxicity, cruelty and destruction -- or sustainability and humanity. American consumption has an enormous impact on society and the Earth. Only consumers can change these systems that profit by our ignorance at the expense of virtually everything and everyone.
Skeptical that a mere chocolate purchase wields such power? The United States is the world's largest consumer -- about 3 billion pounds a year. We can do such good with our purchasing clout. Fair trade chocolates struggle to compete because our country's biggest chocolate manufacturers (Hershey and M&M/Mars) refuse to use fair-trade beans. They get away with it for one reason: because you buy it.
We don't have to support these practices. We can vote with our dollars and avoid spreading poisons when the point is to spread love. Thanks to organic producers, we can have our treats shadow-free -- without sacrificing a thing -- while shunning polluters and the greed that denies workers fair wages and conditions. Your Valentine to a loved one can also be the gift of a decent future for all our children -- and a decent existence for someone's children today.
Why not choose differently, when alternatives are readily available? Wouldn't an organic, fair-trade chocolate bar taste sweeter than a cruel and toxic one? Surely your sweetheart would agree.
Seattle Post Intelligencer and Organic Trade Association, February 10, 2006
Robyn Landis is the Seattle-based author of "BodyFueling" and "Herbal Defense" and runs a consumer-information Web site (www.bodyfueling.com
) covering health, environmental and animal welfare issues. She has no financial ties to any chocolate or flower producer.