Privilege, luxury, exploitation, poverty, and a hundred-billion-dollar industry. The passion all of this sprung from a small South American bean can be seen in the memory from Kristy Leissle’s childhood that opens Cocoa: ‘When I was about five-years-old I tried to run away from home because my mother would not buy me chocolate.’ Yet as the book progresses, this childish memory plays in stark contrast to the depth of analysis required to unwrap such a complex global industry.
Beginning with a whistle-stop tour of cocoa’s history, Leissle moves on to the contemporary business. Production, economics, politics, trade, consumerism, geography, no aspect of the bean is left unexamined. As she unravels the twisted knots of the cocoa industry, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore how problematic the emerging string is. From the general ignorance of Africa’s crucial role, to the exploitation of labourers, and the questionable fairness of ‘fair trade’, not to mention worrying gender politics. As Leissle points out, ‘when it comes to cocoa, no one is free of its politics.’ By shining a light on the little-known story of the raw material from which all the world’s chocolate derives, the book also demonstrates the importance of questioning where our consumer products come from, and how much suffering or injustice might have taken place for them to reach us.
Cocoa is a tome of fascinating facts and statistics that makes for dense reading at times, but the author’s personal stories and anecdotes from fieldwork offer some light relief from the detailed examination. As a US-based academic, it’s refreshing to hear Leissle demonstrate awareness of her relatively privileged position, while also not holding back on her critique of the murkier aspects of the trade. Yet despite shining a spotlight on the harsh realities, she still sees optimism in a sustainable future where the work of farmers is valued and honoured, by consumers, but more importantly by themselves. Whether it leaves you awed, angry or hungry, this comprehensive exploration of the cocoa industry will appease any desire for information about one of the world’s most popular consumer luxuries. Whatever you take away from Cocoa, it will guarantee you never look at chocolate the same way again