At the start of 2017, author Simran Sethi launched an unprecedented effort to share information and stories about the complex world of cocoa and chocolate in the form of an audio podcast named The Slow Melt. Several months and nine episodes in, Simran has covered a wide variety of topics including flavor varieties and genetics to market impacts on farmers. Episode 9, released today, explores the history and politics of chocolate in West Africa with WCF President, Rick Scobey, who shares his thoughts on the region and how WCF’s CocoaAction strategy is making an impact. WCF connected with Simran to talk about The Slow Melt and explore how the long-term viability and sustainability of the sector is at the core of the podcast.
The Slow Melt is a first-of-its-kind podcast focused on all things chocolate, from origins, to flavor, to social and economic issues. What was the impetus for the podcast, and what is its overarching goal?
The podcast was borne out of the years I spent doing research for my book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, which is an exploration of the loss of biodiversity in food and agriculture told through the lens of flavor and stories of bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer.
I spent months traveling to cocoa origins, tasting liquors and learning about sensory analysis, and attending conferences and interviewing the people at the heart of cocoa conversations. This included a stint at the Cocoa Research Centre in Trinidad which is where my commitment to sharing these stories intensified. There are so many committed people doing such great work; I wanted to shed light on them.
Chocolate is extraordinary in terms of its history, culinary complexity and physiology. Yet, despite the fact I had been eating it my whole life, it wasn’t a food I could recognize in nature. I wanted to learn more and, more importantly, I wanted to share more. Consumers have received such limited information on what chocolate is and where it comes from. Through the podcast, my team and I want to bring more attention to origins and the farmers who grow the crop—and empower chocolate lovers to better understand what they are buying so they can get closer to finding chocolate that aligns with their tastes and their values. In The Slow Melt, chocolate is the thick, delicious lens through which we explore the world.
Cocoa sector sustainability is inextricably linked to many of the issues you cover on The Slow Melt, and one of the reasons Rick is featured in the latest episode. Do you think your podcast is helping to push the dialogue on what sustainability means for the sector from craft chocolate makers to multinational companies?
That is our hope and goal. My graduate degree is in business with a specific focus on sustainability and a lot of my journalism has been focused on reporting on this issue. But it’s important to make sustainability tangible; it means different things to different institutions and manifests differently. While we may not explicitly use the term in each episode, we are always exploring the foundational pillars of sustainability (that now apply to business, but started with development)—the economic, social and environmental impacts of cocoa and chocolate.
A lot of reporting on chocolate focuses on discrete stories without providing much context. I am committed to helping people develop a greater understanding and appreciation of chocolate beyond a recipe or profile of a chocolate maker (which seem to be the stories that dominate coverage in popular media).
In sustainable business, we speak of not only shareholders engagement but stakeholder engagement—engagement by every entity impacted and connected to a product or service. I want chocolate eaters to better understand their role and their power. They don’t have to be passive consumers of a confection but can—with greater information—become agents of change, encouraging companies to make a greater, deeper commitment to sustainability and supporting the companies that are authentically engaging to support people, the planet and profit.
In Episode 7 you talk about the difference between craft chocolate and industrial chocolate. One of the big differences is that long term change is driven by the big companies by the sheer size and impact theses companies are able to make on the ground. This is especially true as it relates to sustainability, and something Rick explains in more detail in Episode 9 when he introduces CocoaAction. What are some of the main opportunities you see in driving sustainability sector wide?
Due to size and influence, bigger companies play a role in both the challenges and opportunities in the cocoa sector. The chocolate most of the world knows and loves is made by big manufacturers, part of a value chain that includes large processors, traders and retailers. There is a role for companies of every size but, ultimately, the industry will rise or fall on the efforts of the biggest players in the sector.
You reference episode 7, which is a show dedicated to explaining to consumers what craft chocolate is—and is not. There is no oversight over the use of terms and little information on what these terms mean. My greatest challenge is the adaptation of the term bean-to-bar which is intended to distinguish smaller makers from large manufacturers by implying they have greater oversight over chocolate from the bean to the bar. This is, of course, false and creates tremendous confusion.
In the context of this conversation, I encourage people to listen to show 4 on the high price of cheap chocolate and the interview I did with Laurent Pipitone who headed up the economics and statistics division of the International Cocoa Organization. Regardless of where we fall on the chocolate continuum—from manufacturer to end consumer—we know there is no chocolate without cocoa farmers. In the 1980s, cocoa farmers received a much greater portion of profits from the sale of chocolate than they do today—closer to 50 percent of the value of a chocolate bar. Today that percentage hovers around 6 percent. This is due to a number of factors. In our interview, Laurent helped illuminate some of the challenges and complexities around this; it is the area where I hope the sector will do the most work.
We cannot aspire to environmental sustainability or social justice when people are poor. When people are hungry—when they have few options—they will cut down the rainforest, they will push their children into unjust labor conditions. This is not option A or B; it is a decision made when people are desperate. And it shouldn’t, and doesn’t have to, be this way.
What one the most important message you want your listeners to come away with after listening to the podcast?
Season One was dedicated to building a more informed consumer base so we can do a deeper dive on flavor, the cultivation of cacao, and social and environmental issues in Season Two. I suppose the most important message I want people to understand thus far is that cocoa is an agricultural product—the seeds of a fruit—subject to so many factors. And that it is a product that begins a long journey of transformation in the hands of farmers. I am very proud of the fact that we have interviewed people involved in cocoa from five different continents. That includes people who farm cocoa or work directly with farmers.