The University of Bath in the UK says it has developed a system that allows the DNA testing of cocoa. Using the results, buyers will be able to identify the precise farm from where the cocoa has been grown, thus creating an irrefutable evidence-based report.

The University has released the research including a video, in which they claim that the current certification programmes don’t go far enough in guaranteeing the environmental, and ethical credentials of the cocoa being certified.

Michael Rogerson, a researcher at the University, says in the brief video that the industry attributes little value to these certifications, and the only reason they exist is to provide a message that the average consumer can understand.

Rogerson posits that it would be better to focus on making a real difference and creating an impact on the ground, instead of continuing to peddle the existing narrative, that has limited evidence to support the claims being made.

There are an estimated 2.2 million child labourers working on farms in West Africa and reports suggest the problems are worsening, despite promises made by large chocolate producers – Michael Rogerson, a researcher at the University of Bath

A key consideration for this solution was that it had to be cost-effective. the university claims the cost to each Farm would be in the region of £5 or ($6.80), which is within The boundaries of affordability for an industry that generates such huge profits.

The solution is so elegant in its simplicity. It relies on biomarkers which are unique identifiers in DNA. The remarkable finding is that these identifiers persist all the way through to the final bar of chocolate.

Because the DNA markers are each unique to a location, It Is analogous to each farm having its own fingerprint which is unique to them.

What is needed is a kit to test and identify the biomarker on the farm, and another one where the beans are fermented. But we are not at that stage yet, as Rogerson explains, they must first make sure the system can scale.

Inventions often fail at the scalability stage because many ideas that work in a lab simply don’t work beyond a certain level. Rogerson is staying optimistic however and says:

“This has the potential to revolutionise sustainability in a market rife with environmental destruction and human misery, in that firms will now be able to buy from a specific set of known farms, which have approved labour and environmental standards, and to prove that their chocolate is made with that cocoa,”

Rogerson is critical of organisations like Fairtrade, which have certifications that may offer comfort to the public but do little to put a stop to the trade in slavery and human rights abuses. However, he says his solution offers them a way to bolster their own credibility, by being an implementation partner.

Many in the industry have known for some time that certifications are ineffective because they don’t resolve the underlying problem, and auditing compliance is too expensive to be cost-effective. A solution that does not involve having to regularly visit the farms to verify compliance is one worth serious consideration

Rogerson said: “activists, NGOs, and governments will be able to prove that the chocolate bar you buy in your local supermarket, contains cocoa grown on farms which abuse the environment or employ child or forced labour. We know consumers care about this – but they need accurate, reliable information to make ethical choices,”

Although the cost of £5 per farm seems very reasonable, I wonder about the question of why child labour is used in the first place. Is it because it’s cheap and the alternative would be to hire a worker and pay them a fair rate?

This is an unfortunate hidden cost to any scheme that reduces child labour, and the more efficient the scheme is in taking children out of the supply chain, then the more the farmers will have to pay the true cost of labour and fair wages.

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