The Kritic

Woman and ChocolateSource: Petr Kratochvil

Food fraud is a major issue, particularly in organic products.

Ten percent of products in the food and drink category are “adulterated or mislabeled,” according to a new study by Ecovia Intelligence, an ethical product research firm. Seafood, parmesan cheese, Kobe beef, herbal tea – all of these products were investigated and outed as oft-disguised and mis-marketed in Larry Olmstead’s 2016 food fraud expose, “Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It.”

But what about labeled grocery products we’re conditioned to trust? Especially products that can charge a high premium for being “ethical” or “sustainable”? Chocolate, particularly, comes to mind. The bean-to-bar phenomenon can command upwards of $10 for a single chocolate bar, but are we really getting what we pay for? According to an April 2016 study on millennial purchasing habits, the artisanal-loving generation often fails to ask questions about the ethics of their chocolate sourcing, so we asked the questions ourselves.

First, what, other than an arbitrary label, qualifies chocolate as sustainable?

“I see the sustainability discussion from two angles, the socioeconomic—fair prices and labour practices—and the environmental—sound agricultural practices, biodiversity, etc.,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.

“Most cocoa farms throughout the world are small family holdings of just a few acres and their output, high costs and intensive labor required often mean cocoa farmers straddle established poverty lines,” he explains. “The complex collection and distribution system as cocoa beans travel from origin to factory to consumer compounds the issue of fair farmer prices, who are often left with the smallest portion of a chocolate bar’s retail price.”

Laiskonis says he’s personally unaware of any intentional food fraud or mislabelling in the chocolate industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

“There are few, if any industry standards (government or self-imposed) when it comes to labelling and understanding the process and provenance of a bar,” Laiskonis explains, noting that a few label cues, like an origin or cocoa variety statement, grower information and insight into the manufacturing process can help guide consumers toward sustainable choices.

While third-party certifications like “Direct Trade,” “Fair Trade,” “Rainforest Alliance” and “organic” may be helpful, they’re also cost-prohibitive for small farmers, as well as ineffective, thanks to bureaucracy in several cocoa-growing parts of the world. Pricing can also be an effective way to sort through chocolate bars, knowing that some chocolatiers will inflate their prices because of the popularity of the fine chocolate market, but a cheap chocolate bar probably reflects cheaply sourced beans or low-quality chocolate.

The best way to feel confident that your chocolate is ethical and sustainable is to know your maker.

“I often advise that the more transparent, detailed and credible the story offered by the chocolate-maker, the better chance that the chocolate is of higher quality, produced with greater care, and ultimately, with a greater sense of ethical responsibility,” Laiskonis says.

In the case of Greg D’Alesandre, the chocolate sourcer and owner of bean-to-bar chocolatier Dandelion Chocolate, an annual public sourcing report (which includes where the beans come from, how much Dandelion pays and how the operation works) helps him connect to consumers on a traceable human level.

D’Alesandre spends over 20 weeks of the year travelling to visit producers in 25 different cocoa-growing countries in order to find the best possible cocoa for his business, so he can feel comfortable with the farms he’s buying from.

“Most people in the world are trying to do a great job at the thing that they’re doing,” D’Alesandre told AlterNet, on a rare week he was actually working from his headquarters in San Francisco. He gives producers the benefit of the doubt, building trust with them in order to “be as transparent as humanly possible.”

Knowing producers personally, and having point people around the world, allows him to communicate openly with his clients and create relationships. But, he admits, “Trust is a tricky thing,” adding that “some people look to certifications [for buying chocolate], but we have a personal relationship with the people that we work with. With a certification, people go to audit what’s going on. But it’s easy to lie to an auditor; it may be harder to lie to me. An auditor is checking on you; I am buying the beans—lying to me can put our business relationship at risk.” And with all the elements he inspects, he says, “lying would become laughably complex.”

In one instance, D’Alesandre was relieved that a farm in the Dominican Republic informed him that a fermentory mixed its beans with another farm’s beans, making the cocoa to be used in the Dandelion bar a combination of blended beans rather than “single reserve.” D’Alesandre still purchased the beans, labelled the chocolate bars accordingly, and continued his relationship with the farm.

Because he only visits most of his producers one week out of the year or less, D’Alesandre knows that the other 51 weeks of the year could potentially look very different at the site, but still attributes on-the-ground research to knowing the true origin of a chocolate bar (he said some large companies, like Valrhona, excel at this).

“It’s much more about me understanding the people who we’re working with, to make sure that we have aligned values,” D’Alesandre said. “I rarely run into people who have any ill intent. They are sustenance and crop farmers trying to produce good cacao—the land is their livelihood.”

Certifications can be prohibitively expensive for farmers, so D’Alesandre will also look to see how well they’re treating the environment and using their land, avoiding burning crops and using chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Most likely, the farmers can’t afford chemicals, nor would they want to use them, as chemicals don’t help cocoa grow any faster. D’Alesandre also evaluates how money is distributed among workers, especially based on the cost of labour in each region.

To determine pricing for his chocolate, he looks at what “people need to survive” in a given area—not the standard rate companies are willing to pay for cocoa—in order to keep business ethical and sustainable. “That’s the biggest reason we have the sourcing program we have; [we don’t use] what the world market says is ‘fair.'”

To know if your chocolate is ethically, humanely and sustainably sourced, the best and perhaps only verifiable way is to see the production with your own eyes. With social media, that has become more doable, but the next best thing is speaking with your chocolatier or producer of bean-to-bar chocolate. D’Alesandre can tell detailed stories about the locations he’s visited, and he’s not going to sugarcoat the situations in cocoa farms across the planet.

While he’s never witnessed slave labour or forcible child labour on his site visits, he says it’s common to see children working with their families on their family farms. “In some countries, there are no schools; the kids are working with their families on the farm and they don’t perceive it as ‘labour,'” explains D’Alesandre. “There’s no other option for what to do with their child, but they want them to have an education and a better life.” Supporting ethical, sustainable small business can hopefully boost a local economy and lead to educational opportunities further down the line.

More than anything, knowing the reality of the everyday lives of the people growing and selling the cocoa will verify what a $10 bar of chocolate truly is. “[Some] people travel for an exotic vacation, rather than seeing what’s actually on the ground,” says D’Alesandre. “It’s just a nice story to tell, until you talk to the people who are actually involved.”

Reposted with permission from AlterNet.
By Kylie Williams, Charles Sturt University
Read the original article.

Carrying Sustainable Aviation Biofuel

KLM Royal Dutch Airliner Being refuelled with Sustainable BioFuelSource: KLM

On 7th October, 2013 I wrote[1] about KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) and their announcement that on the 8th March, 2013[2] it had started weekly flights by a Boeing 777-200 between John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, USA and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Netherlands using sustainable biofuel supplied by SkyNRG, a company which KLM founded in 2009.

Now, four years later, I take a look at where we are with the use of biofuel, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), and the rationale for its use.

What is Sustainable Aviation Fuel?

“Sustainable Aviation Fuel”, or “SAF”, refers to jet fuel that, rather than being refined from petroleum, is produced from renewable feedstocks such as waste oils (e.g. used cooking oil) as is the case with SkyNRG. SAF is a so called “drop-in” fuel, which means it can be blended with fossil jet fuel and that the blended fuel requires no special infrastructure or equipment changes. Once it’s blended, the fuel is fully certified (ASTM D1655/ DEFSTAN 91-91).[3]

The Rationale

Flying is essential globally for economies, businesses and even personal use. The aviation industry is expected to double in carbon emissions by 2050. Currently, aviation accounts for approximately 2% of all man made global carbon dioxide emissions. That figure could rise to as much as 5% by 2050 due to the sector’s anticipated rapid growth and forecasted carbon reduction from other industries. In order to maintain this growth and at the same time address environmental impact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has committed to carbon neutral growth by 2020 and reducing net aviation carbon emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2050.

More than 99% of airline emissions and approximately 50% of airport emissions result from the combustion of kerosene. Increased energy efficiency and energy demand reduction are effective ways and the first priority to reduce fuel consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions. But efficiency improvements do not offer a sole solution to aviation related emissions and dependency on oil. Because airplanes are not able to switch to alternative energy sources like hydrogen or electricity in the foreseeable future, SAF made from renewable biomass is the only way to significantly reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and at the same time also reduce the dependency on fossil kerosene.[4]

Continued Growth

Throughout 2014 more and more KLM SAF flights were added with routes such as Amsterdam to the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Bonaire, Karlstad to Frankfurt, Karlstad to Stockholm, Trondheim to Oslo and from Bergen to Oslo to name but a few.

Friday 16 May 2014 marked the longest biofuel flight performed by an Airbus A330-200 aircraft[5]. The 10-hour flight was powered by a 20 per cent blend made of used cooking oil supplied by sustainable aviation biofuel provider SkyNRG. Also of note for SkyNRG, in 2014 is that it supplied more than 20 airlines around the world with SAF.

British Airways’ Head of Environment, Jonathon Counsell, announced that a 20-acre (8ha) site in east London was selected for its GreenSky project with Solena fuels. GreenSky will convert around 600,000 tonnes of municipal waste into 50,000 tonnes of biojet and 50,000 tonnes of biodiesel annually with an expectation of annual savings of up to 145,000 tonnes of CO2. There is an estimated 10 million tonnes of available municipal waste within a 25-mile radius of the proposed project. Under British Airways’ 10-year contract with Solena, it will purchase all the fuel – worth $500 million at 2014’s prices – produced by the plant.[6]

2014 also saw the announcement of new Feedstocks for the production of SAF. From the Abu Dhabi research on the shrub-like plant, Halophytes, which feeds off seawater in desert terrain. The research was spearheaded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), which is funded by Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP. “Halophytes show even more promise than we expected as a source of renewable fuel for jets and other vehicles,” said SBRC director Dr. Alejandro Rios in a statement.[7]

A two-year study commissioned by Airbus, Virgin Australia and other partners has concluded Mallee Eucalypts could be the basis for a viable and sustainable jet biofuel sector in Western Australia. Mallee Eucalypts are grown in belts across Australian wheatbelt farms and provide vegetative cover. They are hardy trees that can withstand regular harvesting while benefiting the farm in other ways. With a deep-rooted system and perennial growth, the mallee can draw up excess water to reduce waterlogging of crops. The study estimated a mallee-based biofuels industry – including harvesting, transport and production – could provide employment for 40 people and bring about A$30 million per year.[8]

2015 saw Boeing, SkyNRG and the University of British Columbia (UBC) form a consortium with Canadian aviation industry partners to assess the potential of producing sustainable jet fuel from forest residues using thermochemical processing. A Boeing-sponsored study by UBC found that fuel from Canada’s sustainably certified forests’ waste could meet 10% – about 175 million litres – of British Columbia’s annual jet fuel demand.[9]

Certification was awarded by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) for the South African “Project Solaris”. Project Solaris, run by Boeing, SkyNRG, South African Airways and Sunchem Holdings, is an initiative that is developing an energy-rich tobacco crop with the patented nicotine-free and GMO-free Solaris oil seed, owned by Sunchem Holdings, for use as a feedstock for producing aviation biofuel.[10]

2016 – Africa’s first sustainable biofuel commercial flight took place when a South African Airways Boeing 737-800 flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town used a jet fuel produced from nicotine-free tobacco plants grown in the Limpopo region of South Africa under the Solaris project.[11]

KLM initiated a series of sustainable biofuel flights between Oslo and Amsterdam. The series of daily flights by KLM Cityhopper was over a six week period using EMBRAER 190 E-Jet. The SAF for the series of daily flights was purchased from Gardermoen airport in Oslo which was the first airport in the world to include biofuel in its regular fuelling processes.[12]

KLM announced that all its flights originating in Los Angeles will be using sustainable biofuel for the next three years. The biofuel is being produced by AltAir, a local biofuel refinery, and delivered by SkyNRG to Los Angeles which became the second airport in the world to include biofuel in its regular fuelling processes.[13]

2017 – Qantas has announced that its flights from Los Angeles will be powered by biofuel from 2020 as a result of an off-take agreement with US bioenergy company SG Preston. The Australian airline says it will purchase 30 million litres of renewable jet fuel per year for a 10-year period. The fuel will be a 50/50 blend of conventional jet fuel and renewable fuel produced from non-food plant oils.[14]

What was once a novel idea has become a burgeoning, sustainable industry that is working to counter the effects that its fossil fuel use has on our environment. Whilst I am not convinced that the use of land and fresh water to to grow SAF feedstock is a good step there are a couple of feedstocks that appear, with the information available, to utilise land and water that would otherwise not be used – plants such as the Halophytes with their thirst for saltwater and desert land and Mallee Eucalypts that are grown between fields of wheat and soak excess water that would normally waterlog the fields.


[2] Press release – “Weekly flight using sustainable Biofuel”
[3] What is Sustainable Aviation Fuel?
[4] Rationale for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)
[5] Longest biofuel flight performed by an Airbus A330-200 aircraft
[6] GreenSky projec will convert around 600,000 tonnes of municipal waste into 50,000 tonnes of biojet
[7] Research on the shrub-like plant halophytes
[8] Mallee Eucalypts could be the basis for a viable and sustainable jet biofuel sector
[9] Consortium will assess whether there is scope to produce sustainable jet fuel Canada’s sustainably certified forests’ waste.
[10] RSB certification for Project Solaris
[11] Produced from high-energy tobacco crops, SAA undertakes Africa’s first sustainable biofuel commercial flight
[12] Series of daily flights by KLM Cityhopper over a six week period using EMBRAER 190 E-Jet
[13] All KLM flights originating in Los Angeles to use sustainable biofuel for the next three years.
[14] Qantas has announced that its flights from Los Angeles will be powered by biofuel from 2020
[15] Virgin Australia has announced it will shortly start trialling the use of renewable jet fuel