cacao currency

ONE TOMATO FOR ONE COCOA BEAN. A HISTORY OF THE VALUE OF CACAO

Last Updated on November 15, 2021 by Nick Baskett

Mexican manuscript banned

As a cardinal in the Pope’s court, Ferdinando de Medici discovered a 12-volume manuscript consisting of 2,400 pages with more than 2,000 illustrations, which had recently been sent to Rome from Madrid. The magisterial work had been commissioned by the Catholic Church to Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan brother and three of his Aztec students at Santa Cruz College in Tiatelolco (present-day Mexico City). However, when the book arrived in Madrid after its completion, it was placed on the list of prohibited books by order of the Inquisition and King Philip II. 

Ferdinando de Medici

Ferdinando apparently had a very different opinion about the work. He was allowed to take it with him and add it to the Medici family’s cabinet of arts and curiosities in Florence. From then on, the masterpiece became known as the ‘Florentine Codex’. What made this manuscript so controversial in the eyes of the Spanish Inquisition, and why is it so important for all those involved in cacao? First of all, it was written in three languages: Spanish, Latin and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec and Toltec civilizations of Mexico. But even more shocking to the very devout Philip II, it contained a complete ethnography of the Aztecs, with all the information about their ceremonies, their astrology, their kings and their gods.

$80 for a kilo of cacao

We can be grateful to Ferdinando for giving the Florentine Codex its more than well-deserved place because it provides a wealth of knowledge not only about Aztec thought and the realm of the gods but also about more ‘earthly’ things such as animals, stones, colors, precious metals and, yes … cacao. And here, it becomes very interesting for the cacao-minded: the value of cacao beans is also noted in the Codex. The Aztecs used cacao beans as their currency. For example, we know that a large tomato cost 1 cacao bean in the 1550s, a normal avocado three cacao beans and a small rabbit 30 cacao beans. It is interesting to convert this to current prices to find out how the value of cacao has changed over the course of centuries. For convenience, let’s assume an average wholesale value of $0.10 for a tomato. We also know that, on average, 800 cacao beans can go into a kilo. All this means that – roughly speaking – in the middle of the 16th century, a kilo of cacao was traded in Mexico at a current value of $80.

Hernan Cortes

When he arrived in Mexico in 1519, Hernán Cortés had already discovered that the Aztecs valued cacao even higher than gold. In one of his letters sent to King Carlos V, Cortes talked about this Aztec obsession with cacao. He also described that a cup of ‘xocoatl’ gave enough strength to keep a soldier on his feet for a day. In 1528, Cortes returned to Spain with gold and cacao. With its introduction to the Spanish court, the rise of cacao as a luxurious, valuable drink with medicinal and even aphrodisiac value began.

Undervalued

In the 21st century, cacao in the form of chocolate seems even more popular than in the 16th century. Over the past twenty years, Asia has also embraced the brown gold as a favourite delicacy and gift. But this appreciation is not expressed in the price: the world trade price of cacao has fluctuated for years between $2 and $3 per kilo, a stark contrast to the value the Aztecs once attributed to it. But could the cacao price ever shoot back to that estimated $80 per kilo? There are several arguments why this is certainly not inconceivable.

African production

First, let’s look at cacao production in general. According to the ‘Cocoa Barometer 2020’, global cacao production in South America and Asia remained relatively stable between 1990 and 2020. In Africa, however, production has tripled during that period from 1.37 million to 3.47 million tonnes of beans in 2020. The production concentration is even more dramatic when we have to consider that one African country stands out above all others: Ivory Coast. This country has seen its annual production grow to 2.1 million tonnes, representing almost 43% of world production. The report finds two other interesting phenomena: almost all African cacao is traded as bulk, while cacao beans from the American and Asian continent – with a few exceptions such as Indonesia and Ecuador – are sold much more as ‘fine or flavor cacao’ for which much higher prices are paid. In addition, there is extremely little domestic chocolate consumption in Africa. In Brazil, on the other hand, cacao has even to be imported to meet domestic demand.

Chocolate will be like caviar

But what about the total demand for cacao? According to a recent report from Rabobank, the demand for cacao will increase by 3% this year to 4.9 million tonnes in 2021/2022, leaving a small production shortage of 8,000 tonnes. Cacao has always known a delicate balance between supply and demand in recent decades, but the end of this balance now seems in sight. On the one hand, the 4.5 billion increasingly prosperous consumers in Asia are driving demand; on the other hand, climate changes seem to be taking their toll. 

In 2010, John Mason of the Nature Conservation Research Council predicted: “in 20 years, chocolate will be like caviar. It will become so rare and expensive that the average Joe just won’t be able to afford it.” He seemed very premature with his 2010 predictions, but less than a decade later, major producers like Callebaut are beginning to see that he is going to get it right after all. It is not only wildly growing Asian consumption and climate change that lay the foundation for expected price shocks upwards. Political unrest in West Africa also makes cacao buyers nervous.

in 20 years, chocolate will be like caviar

JOHN MASON. NATURE CONSERVATION RESEARCH COUNCIL, 2010

Ivory Coast

It’s quite rumbling in Ivory Coast. The cacao price for farmers is not determined by the market here but by the government. Just before the elections in October last year, President Alassane Ouattara announced that this fixed price would go up: farmers would now receive 1,000 CFA per kilo, or about $1.80. The New York world price for cacao at that time was $2.40.

At the moment, in October 2021, the world trade price has risen to $2.60. But the government dropped a bombshell this same month by scaling the stated kilo price for cacao farmers by as much as 17.5% to 825 CFA, $1.45.

The lost game of Fair Trade

Fair Trade organizations have good intentions and initiatives. But their influence on the government of the Ivory Coast appears to be nil. And this is the most crucial factor in the pursuit of fairer cacao prices for farmers as well as for sustainability. If this government decides that a farmer gets only 55% of the world trade price, this means that most cacao farmers in Ivory Coast will resort even more to the cheapest labor – read child labor – and to the illegal felling of jungles in order to find more untouched fertile farmland that doesn’t need immediate fertilization.

Coffee supercycle

Why the Ivory Coast government has taken this drastic price measure is a mystery. Rabobank notes that production in the country is stagnating for the first time in decades and will even decline by 60,000 tonnes this season. And meanwhile, the price increases of many commodities seem to point in the direction of a coming commodities supercycle. Not only wood, concrete, oil, gas, cobalt, lithium, copper, aluminium, nickel, zinc, lead and tin have already risen at least 15% this year, prices for food commodities such as sugar, wheat, palm oil, and coffee are also booming. The price of coffee is even skyrocketing. Coffee has become at least 50% more expensive since the beginning of this year. Scientists’ warnings that 60 per cent of all types of coffee plants are at risk of extinction (Science Advances) also indicate that there is only one path for the price of coffee in the next decade, and it is going up.

Catastrophic

So when all commodity prices are going through the roof, why the pressure on the farmers’ cacao price in Ivory Coast? The government here seems to be playing with fire. They are still the largest player on the market. But the price discouragement policy for farmers can have a catastrophic effect on production. Farmers will have even less money for fertilizers and maintenance. And just a small drop in production in Ivory Coast can already unbalance the world cacao trade, as is already expected for the coming season.

Conclusion

Due to the rapidly increasing prosperity, especially in Asia, where more than half of the world’s population lives, the demand for chocolate will only continue to increase.

A price of $80 per kilo as it existed 500 years ago, or that chocolate will become as expensive as caviar, both seem unlikely for the time being, but it is obvious that the price of cacao will rise sharply in the coming decade. The old record price of $5.70, which by the way dates back to 1977, will certainly be passed. You may not be able to buy a large tomato for a cacao bean in ten years’ time, but maybe you could exchange it for a small, adorable cherry tomato.


Written by Stefan Struik, founder of Kamkav Farm in Cambodia

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