The world of cocoa, through the eyes of a stamp collector

My grandmother had no shortage of hobbies: she was a keen gardener, a painter, a sculptor – and a stamp collector. And she shared her hobbies with me as a child: she showed me how to make a pot out of clay; she instilled me with a love of flowers; and, when a new series of stamps was released by Australia Post that she knew I’d like (often ones depicting Australian native birds, or children’s book illustrations), she’d buy me the set, or occasionally an entire sheet of stamps.

It’s no wonder that stamp collecting is a popular hobby, given that postage stamps are often very cheap to buy, as well as being – by definition – easy to send around the world. But, in addition to their practical attributes, stamps are often quite beautiful – or at least colourful and quirky – and they offer a tiny, and sometimes fascinating, glimpse into the life and times of their country of origin.

Although I never became a serious philatelist, I have continued collecting a small number of stamps that I find particularly interesting – mostly to do with agriculture and – of course! – cocoa.

The first postage stamps I collected as an adult were a pair from the USSR depicting my agricultural hero, Nikolai Vavilov. (Anyone who finds the concept of an “agricultural hero” surprising should do themselves a favour and read Vavilov’s fascinating and harrowing life story. I’ve previously written a little bit about Vavilov, and his amazing contribution to agronomy and genetics, in an article about the history and origins of the cacao tree.)

USSR postage stamps depicting the inspirational agronomist, Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), who fell foul of Stalin and died of starvation in prison in 1943 – a profoundly ironic fate for a man whose life’s work was to help feed millions of people.

The first stamp in my collection to depict cocoa was from one of my favourite places in the world: Vanuatu – or New Hebrides, as it was called in 1963 when this 10 centime stamp was first released:

A 1963 10 centime stamp depicting a cocoa tree and pods, from New Hebrides (which has been called Vanuatu since gaining independence in 1980).
From 1906 until 1980, New Hebrides was a British-French Condominium, which is a very unusual arrangement whereby multiple sovereign powers formally agree to share equal dominium over a political territory.

The next addition to my collection was a set of Spanish stamps, released in 1989, and illustrated by the eccentric artist Alberto Porta (also known as Alberto Pornacido, or simply as Zush).

A slightly trippy series of stamps, commissioned by the Spanish postal service (Correos) and illustrated by “Zush”. The stamps depict native South American food plants that undoubtedly changed the world: maize (or corn), tomato, cacao, and potato.

Personally, I find Zush’s illustrations (which depict native South American foods) quite disturbing – for starters, what’s with the crazy eyes on the tomato and the corn cob? Hence, I wasn’t very surprised to learn that Porta had been locked away in a psychiatric institution during General Franco’s dictatorship, emerging as “Zush”, and later declaring himself a one-man nation in the “Mental State of Evrugo” (which apparently has its own flag, currency, alphabet and prime minister. I wonder if Evrugo has its own postal service, too?). Reference: “Spanish artist proclaims himself one-man nation”.

The remaining postage stamps in my cocoa collection all come from cocoa-growing countries, including the Carribean island nation of Grenada, the South American nation of Suriname, and the West African nation of Togo:

Grenadan postage stamps from the 1960s, depicting Queen Elizabeth II, seemingly gazing at some striking red cacao pods.

Another pair of stamps from Grenada, released in 1975. These two (from a set of 20 Grenadan scenes) depict cocoa beans in drying trays, and a cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao).

A 3 cent stamp from Suriname, released in 1961, depicting a cluster of pods on a Theobroma cacao tree.

A 3-stamp set from Togo, commissioned by OPAT (the office of agricultural products of Togo) for international cocoa day (“journee internationale du cacao”), 6 June 1971. The stamps depict “cacaoyers” (cocoa); “cueillette de cabosses” (picking pods); and “sechage du cacao” (drying cacao).

Zokoko chocolate and pesticides

In a recent post I explained that I left The Chocolate Life forum because of the hostile reaction I received from the forum’s owner, Clay Gordon, when I bluntly questioned the proprietor of Zokoko chocolate – Michelle Morgan – about a dubious claim on Zokoko’s website that “all the beans we source are certified organic”.

In 2010 the FAQ page on Zokoko’s website stated: “all the beans we source are certified organic”. I believe that this claim by Zokoko was false, misleading, and illegal in Australia.

When Michelle Morgan ignored my questions, I publicly threatened to take the issue to the relevant legal authority (NSW Fair Trading in Australia). Very shortly after that, the “certified organic” claim quietly disappeared from the Zokoko website. No explanation was ever offered by Michelle Morgan or any other representative of Zokoko.

Why was I so upset about Zokoko’s statement that “all the beans we source are certified organic”?

  1. because I care very much about pesticide-free food production, and
  2. because my research had led me to believe that Zokoko’s major supplier at that time – Tokiala plantation in PNG – was not only not certified organic, but, moreover, was on the public record as using the dangerous insecticide chlorpyrifos to control the insect pest cocoa pod borer (CPB).

At the time that I raised this issue on The Chocolate Life, the Tokiala 66% bar was the only chocolate bar being sold by Zokoko. I bought and ate that chocolate while under the impression that the cocoa beans in it were certified organic.

Organic food production really matters to me: I have spent a significant amount of time, effort, and money to find, buy, grow, eat, promote, and generally support organically-grown food for my entire adult life (20+ years). Hence, I was furious – and I mean really furious – when I discovered that I had been duped into buying and eating a Zokoko chocolate bar made with beans grown on trees that had been sprayed with chlorpyrifos.

What is chlorpyrifos, and why is it bad?

Chlorpyrifos goes by many different names, including the generic names chloorpyrifos and chloropyrifos, as well as the Dow Chemical Company trade names Dursban and Lorsban. It has the molecular formula C9H11Cl3NO3PS.

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate (OP) insecticide, which, like all OP insecticides, is a nerve agent that works by irreversibly inactivating the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is essential to nerve function – not only in insects, but also in humans and other animals.

Chlorpyrifos is very toxic to all insects (including beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators) as well as to birds, fish, and aquatic invertebrates.

Acute exposure to chlorpyrifos in humans can cause (among other symptoms) dizziness, vomiting, muscle cramps, convulsions, and death. Humans can be exposed to chlorpyrifos by inhalation, ingestion, and absorption through the skin. Farm workers who are directly exposed to chlorpyrifos – and their unborn children – are most at risk (chlorpyrifos has been found to have deleterious effects not only on fetuses, but also on sperm). Reference: Dursban and Birth Defects.

In 2003, Dow AgroSciences agreed to pay $2 million – the largest penalty ever in a pesticide case – to the state of New York, in response to a lawsuit filed by the NY Attorney General to end Dow’s illegal advertising of Dursban as “safe”. (Dursban is Dow’s trade name for chlorpyrifos.) Reference: Dow AgroSciences agrees to pay $2M to state over pesticide ads.

Chlorpyrifos (which was banned for residential uses in the USA in 2001) is still commonly used to poison bedbugs in Asian hotels, and acute chlorpyrifos exposure has been linked to the deaths of at least seven adult tourists in Thailand and Vietnam in 2011 and 2012. Reference: ‘Toxic chemical link’ to Thailand hotel deaths.

Furthermore, there is strong evidence that even low level exposure to chlorpyrifos – especially prenatal exposure in the womb – causes permanent intellectual impairment in children. Reference: Pesticide Chlorpyrifos Linked to Childhood Developmental Delays.

Chlorpyrifos is prohibited by the World Bank’s Operational Policy for Pest Management (OP 4.09) due to its Class II hazard rating by the World Health Organizaton (WHO), and its use is prohibited by all organic certification schemes world-wide.

For more information about the complexity involved in understanding the harm caused to humans by pesticides in general, and chlorpyrifos in particular, I strongly recommend reading the following 2006 article: “A Case for Revisiting the Safety of Pesticides: A Closer Look at Neurodevelopment”, as published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and freely available in its entirety online.

What’s the link between Zokoko chocolate and dangerous pesticides such as chlorpyrifos?

  1. In 2010, Zokoko chocolate (owned and operated by Michelle Morgan) was sourcing cocoa beans from Tokiala plantation in Papua New Guinea. According to the wrapper on a bar purchased from the Zokoko cafe in Emu Plains in November 2010:
    “TOKIALA PNG, 66% CACAO, The finest trinitario cacao from Tokiala Plantation”. (Incidentally, I believe that the “finest trinitario” label was also false and misleading, as I intend to explain further in a separate post.) Also, in November 2010, the Tokiala 66% bar was the only chocolate bar available for purchase at Zokoko’s Emu Plains shop.
  2. Tokiala plantation is located on the western side of the Gazelle Pensinsula, within the East New Britain Province (ENBP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG), in the vicinity of Tavilo and Vudal.
  3. Tokiala plantation is owned by NGIP-Agmark (NGIP is the corporate parent company: New Guinea Islands Produce Company Ltd). Source: Islands Post.
  4. According to its own website, NGIP-Agmark is “the largest cocoa grower, trader and exporter of PNG cocoa”, trading and exporting “approximately 70% of PNG’s cocoa crop”.
  5. NGIP-Agmark is a large, multi-faceted, and profitable business, announcing a K4.358 million ($US2.1 million) operating profit in the six months to 30 June 2011. Source: Business Advantage International (PDF).
  6. In addition to being PNG’s largest cocoa grower, trader, and exporter, NGIP-Agmark is also one of the country’s major suppliers of agricultural pesticides. Source: “Papua New Guinea – NATIONAL PROFILE OF CHEMICAL MANAGEMENT 2000-2004″ (PDF).
  7. In response to an outbreak of the insect pest cocoa pod borer (CPB) in the East New Britain Province (ENBP) region of PNG in 2006, Agmark adopted a 5-step Integrated Pest and Disease Management (IPDM) regime which was developed by PNG’s Cocoa Coconut Institute(CCI). This IPDM regime includes spraying pods with chlorpyrifos “whenever CPB is reported”. Reference: [ACIAR 1*]
  8. This 5-step IPDM regime – including routine spraying with chlorpyrifos – was implemented at Tokiala, among other places. Reference: [ACIAR 1*]
  9. NGIP-Agmark not only “promotes regular insecticide application” at Tokiala, but also provides “subsidised insecticide” to small-scale cocoa growers in PNG who might not otherwise be able to afford these chemicals. Reference: [ACIAR 2**]

ACIAR stands for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
[ACIAR 1*] = “Enhancing Papua New Guinea smallholder cocoa production through greater adoption of disease control practices”, by R. Daniel and D. Guest.
[ACIAR 2**] = “Socioeconomic impact assessment of cocoa pod borer in East New Britain province, Papua New Guinea”, by G. Curry.

In light of this chain of evidence, and given the fact that Michelle Morgan responded to my questions by quietly removing the contentious claim from her Zokoko website, it seems reasonable to assume that the statement in question – “all the beans we source are certified organic” – was not only false, and misleading, but actually illegal under Australian law. Reference: Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

At the time that I first raised this issue on The Chocolate Life, Clay Gordon wrote an angry email to me, telling me that “TheChocolateLife is not a peer-reviewed scien-fucking-tific journal” and that “People in Australia might start wondering what your motivations are”.

My motivations are simple: I want to eat and promote “clean” foods that aren’t grown in ways that harm farmers, their children, or the environment (including beneficial insect populations). And I want people who make false, misleading, or illegal statements about the ethical, health-related, or sustainable nature of their products to be called to account.

One final point: what did Zokoko’s Tokiala 66% chocolate taste like? I found it unpleasant: low in flavour and high in astringency (which generally indicates inadequate fermentation), with some disturbing acrid and moldy-straw notes. But, clearly people (such as Clay Gordon) perceive me as biased when it comes to Zokoko, so I was intrigued to see the following review posted by Stuart Robson (@S_Rob) of seventypercent.com, on Twitter:

“Tasting some Zokoko Tokiala PNG 66%. An interesting and typically png bar. Odd salty tang and hints of rubber/dry smoke.”

Not exactly a glowing endorsement for cocoa grown with chlorpyrifos.

Why I left The Chocolate Life forum

I joined Clay Gordon’s discussion forum The Chocolate Life in mid 2008. In late 2010 I left The Chocolate Life forum because I was being asked to censor myself by Clay Gordon. As a consquence, I felt that The Chocolate Life was no longer a place where I could speak the truth and encourage high standards of honesty and integrity in the chocolate industry.

Since I joined the chocolate industry in 2003, I’ve worked very hard at discovering, making sense of, and freely sharing the facts of whatever chocolate-related issue I’ve been researching at the time. In addition, I’ve tried to be a strong advocate for cacao growers and the environment, and, to that end, I’ve actively encouraged concerned chocolate lovers to promote truth and honesty in the industry by asking questions. For example, in a 2006 article about pesticides in the cocoa industry – titled Chemical Cocoa – I wrote:

“[…] most chocolate manufacturers want you to believe that their chocolate is free of pesticide residues. But simply saying that cocoa has been grown without chemicals doesn’t make it true. Demand evidence from artisanal chocolate makers. If they can’t – or won’t – provide evidence, then you are entitled to doubt their claims.”

In December 2010 I had cause to take my own advice, having developed serious doubts about a claim being made by a small Australian chocolate manufacturer, Zokoko, on their website, that “all the beans we source are certified organic”. (I’ve written a more detailed post about Zokoko’s “certified organic” claim and the use of dangerous insecticides by Zokoko’s supplier here).

Hence, in 2010 I did exactly what I’d been advising others to do for several years: I questioned Zokoko’s “certified organic” claims on The Chocolate Life. (The owner of Zokoko, Michelle Morgan, was an active member of The Chocolate Life at that time, so it seemed logical to raise my questions on the forum). When my inquiry was ignored, I became increasingly suspicious. I had some very strong evidence supporting my doubts about Zokoko’s organic claim, so, after a few days of my questions being totally ignored, I threatened to take Zokoko’s “certified organic” claim (which I had good reason to believe was illegal) to the NSW Office of Fair Trading – at which point the claim in question simply vanished from their website. Nobody from Zokoko ever provided any response to my questions.

Although Clay Gordon publicly prides himself on questioning and criticising chocolate manufacturers’ claims that “don’t match reality”, he responded very negatively to my questioning and criticism of Zokoko (despite the fact that my position was supported by strong evidence). Clay’s response to me, via email, was to state (in part):

“… TheChocolateLife is not a peer-reviewed scien-fucking-tific journal.”

“… you carry this chip on your shoulder of “scrupulously truthfulness” and wield it like it were a blunt instrument.”

“… You’re not wrong, but you’re not right either, and you fail – at least apparently – to consider anything from any perspective but your own.”

“… People in Australia might start wondering what your motivations are”

In saying these things to me, I felt that Clay betrayed both our friendship and his own integrity, and, by attempting to make me worry about what “people in Australia” might think of my motives, he implied that bluntly exposing the truth is somehow dirtier than attempting to profit by deceiving your customers. This disdain for the truth is a surprisingly common (but not universal) attitude in the chocolate industry, and I am thoroughly sick of it.

Clay continued his criticism of me over 5 separate emails, listing my numerous personal and professional failings, and basically pressuring me to stop asking “awkward” and “difficult” questions – but, above all, to stop presenting facts in the blunt manner that feels as natural to me as breathing.

In other words, Clay was pressuring me to stop being me, which I took exception to – so, I left The Chocolate Life, and took my 150-odd posts with me.

When you leave the Chocolate Life forum, the relevant software automatically asks whether you want your posts to remain on the site, at which point I simply clicked “No”. Clay was clearly very unhappy with the way I had presented my information on his forum, therefore I felt absolutely no obligation to leave my content on his website.

However, he became even more upset when I deleted my posts. As he said in response: “That really, really, really sucks […] you’ve consistently been one of the strongest technical contributors”.

In fact, I believe that I was the strongest technical contributor to The Chocolate Life by a wide margin, because, while there may be a small number of Chocolate Life forum members who know as much as I do, I believe that no one has shared their knowledge in as much volume or detail, or with as much concern for accuracy and supporting evidence as I did.

Am I exaggerating the value of my contributions to the online chocolate community? I don’t think so. For example, in December 2008 (when I was still a member of the forum), Volker Lehmann – the man behind the beans behind Felchlin’s famous Cru Sauvage chocolate, as well as the brains behind the fermentation of the beans in some of Zokoko’s more well-received chocolate – made my day when he wrote:

“Samantha: You are somehow the reason why I am in this forum. I am always looking for your contributions!”

And, as Jim Haro very kindly posted on The Chocolate Life forum after I left:

“whatever the reasons are, I am very saddened by Samantha’s departure from the forum. I have always found her posts and contributions well documented, insightful, enlightening and I have often found myself coming back to them for reference. In my still short journey from bean to bar she has been a reliable source of information and advice. Clay, this is a field where information has long been in the hands of few big players, and the repository of knowledge you have made possible with Chocolatelife is extremely valuable for as long as it counts with contributions of well informed people like Samantha.”

I will always work to uphold the principles of honesty and transparency in food production. And I will continue to shine a light on people who don’t. I do this because the things that we say and do as chocolate manufacturers and as consumers have consequences for the environment, and for other people, including the cocoa growers who use dangerous pesticides in an attempt to raise their yeilds, or chocolate lovers who unwittingly eat chocolate that contains residues of those same pesticides.

These issues (and many more) are important, and should be discussed publicly, and fearlessly. I won’t shy away from that, but I will choose a forum that is supportive to do it in. Sadly, The Chocolate Life is, in my experience, not such a place, so I will continue my work on this blog instead.

A final note: I anticipate that, sooner or later, someone will claim that Zokoko simply made an honest mistake by claiming that all their beans were certified organic. But here’s the thing: when you really care about organic production, and the health of cocoa growers and the environment – as I do – you don’t accidentally buy beans grown on a plantation owned by a large corporate chemical trader, where chlorpyrifos is sprayed quite openly, and then accidentally tell your customers that all the beans you buy are certified organic. So, just to be perfectly clear, I do not accept the “honest mistake” excuse.