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.

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