FOOD

How GoodSam’s Regenerative Cacao Supports Community in Colombia

April 26th, 2021

Chocolate—much like the occasional glass of red wine—is one of those foods whose health benefits almost seem too good to be true. But while chocolate’s heart-healthy flavanols and antioxidant properties are backed up by science, its sourcing is where things can get problematic. 

At its origins, chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree, but the process involved in harvesting these seeds can be one of the world’s most unethical and unsustainable. Cacao farming is notoriously rife with devastating social issues like child labor, deadly working conditions, and pay that is far below a living wage (and, in some cases, no pay at all). It also involves detrimental environmental practices like deforestation and overuse of chemical pesticides.

When GoodSam set out to find a better way to source cacao for its chocolate bars, the brand went to Colombia with a singular mission in mind: to build a truly sustainable, equitable supply chain from bean to bar. 

“Cheap chocolate is a humanitarian crisis: drugs, slaves, poverty, despair,” GoodSam co-founder and CEO Heather K. Terry told us. “When consumers are willing to step up and pay a little more, they are actually changing the world.”

What is the Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao?

They’re just a few letters apart and have largely overlapping uses, but what is the difference between cacao and cocoa? 

Not too much, as it turns out—namely because they both come from the same source: the Theobroma cacao tree, which produces large pods filled with a sticky, white pulp surrounding a few dozen seeds. These seeds are also known as cacao beans, which later become chocolate. 

A farmer holds a whole cacao pod filled with beans

Generally, cacao is a purer, more raw form of cocoa. It’s typically safe to assume that cacao is made of unroasted cacao beans that may not be fermented, while cocoa comes from beans that have been roasted, fermented, and are a bit more processed (and often mixed with milk, sugar, and other flavor ingredients). 

Farming Cacao in Colombia

Whole cacao pods grow on a cacao tree

To find the purest, most delicious cacao for their chocolate products, the folks at GoodSam set their sights on Colombia. The mountainous South American country is famous for its lush Amazonian rainforests, but it actually contains a multitude of ecosystems (including grasslands, deserts, and mountain climates) that make it one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. It’s home to an incredible 10% of the entire planet’s biodiversity, with more bird and orchid species than any other country in the world and the second largest plant, butterfly, and fish species diversity.

A landscape view of a Colombian cacao farm

Historically, many of the families within rural Colombian communities are farmers (in 2011, agriculture employed 60% of the population in Colombia’s rural areas). But it is challenging to make a reliable income as a farmer, as rural areas are so remote that it’s difficult and time-consuming to find buyers in larger cities. Internet access is unreliable, making it hard to communicate, and the rough terrain in these regions can make them feel even more remote.

For younger generations, these challenges have made following in their families’ footsteps a less appealing option. Terry reports that rural youths are often tempted to forgo their farming roots and seek more stable work in larger cities. In some cases, the lack of consistent demand for organic and direct trade products has even forced farmers to grow illegal crops that contribute to Colombia’s powerful illicit drug trade, which has fueled much of the country’s economy since the 1970s.  

How Farmers Associations Build Community in Colombia

This is where the farmers’ associations make a huge difference: by providing farmers access to reliable income from steady buyers like GoodSam, associations help them make a living from farming.

“An association is a group of organized farmers who are working toward the same quality standards and community goals,” Terry explains. “By coming together, they have more power to sell than if they sold on their own.” 

Essentially, these associations do what individual farmers cannot—they address the challenges farmers face, allowing them to band together and pool their resources to simplify their process and increase their income.

Tom den Hartog, Director of Operations at GoodSam, explains that the association provides farmers with access to fertile land where they can grow specific crops, such as cacao and coffee. Immediately after harvesting, farmers sell their pure cacao straight to the association, and the association takes care of fermenting and drying the beans in a centralized location. “Farmers hereby guarantee the quality of the beans and can free up time for themselves and their families,” says den Hartog. Associations also allocate funds to improve roadways and build bridges to provide better transportation to and from farms, which improves the cacao trade and helps to keep illicit groups out of their communities.

In addition to the physical resources associations provide, they also provide something a bit less tangible, but just as important: representation for farmers. “A good association acts as a community leader and represents its farmers to the outside world,” explains den Hartog. “We see the association as a protective shield, and the farmers can redirect questions or comments from outsiders directly to the association. The association also acts as a voice in that region, and can ask for external support for social projects and infrastructure.” 

Associations help individual farmers to make a living—by working together.

Direct Trade vs. Fair Trade

As a result of this years-long effort to develop a strong infrastructure in Colombia, GoodSam was able to create a direct trade supply chain. Terry says this isn’t a condemnation of Fair Trade certification (far from it; in fact, she reports GoodSam still pays Fair Trade and Organic premiums because they ensure farmers are paid fairly). In this case, though, the direct-trade partnership allows GoodSam to pay their farmers directly instead of paying a third-party organization a portion of their sales. 

“Unlike other Fair Trade groups, we do not dictate how the farmers’ money will be spent,” says Sam Stroot, GoodSam’s co-founder and COO. “At GoodSam, we take the same amount of money we’d have given to a Fair Trade third-party group and we pull up a seat at the table for our farmers to propose what needs to happen on their land and in their communities.” Stroot goes on to explain that “part of GoodSam’s mission is to decolonize and make all partners equal within the supply chain”.  

In practice, that investment enables practical improvements to the daily lives of local farmers. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve worked to increase internet bandwidth in the cacao-farming communities; this will help tighten communication for the farmers, aid them in emergencies, and help their children access education. GoodSam also works with the farmers’ association to create a fund that is used just for local community initiatives. So far, they’ve assisted with making home improvements that directly benefit families, like obtaining eco ovens for their homes.

To help retain young people in these farming communities, the association also partners with local universities to fund educational programs for young residents. These foster the skills they need to obtain stable, well-paying agricultural jobs. 

Terry goes on to explain,“We do invest in education, but we also invest in heavy metal testing, garbage removal and other less appealing programs. These ‘less sexy programs,’ as I like to call them, are amongst the most important and empowering for the individuals and communities we work with.”

Organic and Regenerative Farming at Work

GoodSam employees and cacao farmers in Colombia

While the positive impacts on Colombia’s social climate are apparent, the teamwork between GoodSam and the farmers’ association is doing good things for the Earth’s climate, too. 

Colombian farmers have always farmed using organic and even regenerative practices, long before anyone had a term for it. “For anyone who isn’t privy to it, farmers are deeply concerned for the environment,” says Terry. “Even before money, this is the most pressing issue for them. It’s not just a business to them; it is the future of existence, which is something we have lost sight of in our busy lives.”

When GoodSam first met the farmers at the association, they were already employing many organic practices for growing cacao. The cacao farmers preserved the area’s natural forests and waterways when planting their crop, and when building new structures, they used renewable resources (like “guadua”, a strong, fast-growing bamboo) in lieu of wasteful construction materials. By flowering the cacao trees and growing crops alongside one another, they created a diverse ecosystem that can naturally withstand things like pests and drought, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers. 

With GoodSam purchasing cacao in bulk for its chocolate products, the association is able to rely on a stable buyer to keep its fully regenerative farming system going.

 “Horticulture, composting, and carbon sequestering are all part of the system—it’s just not as complicated as we like to make it stateside,” Terry said about their back-to-basics approach to farming.  

A man on a cacao farm points at the mountains in rural Colombia

This isn’t just about making pure, high-quality chocolate; it’s about creating a new system from one that, in many other parts of the world, is deeply flawed. In this new system, GoodSam is able to make its chocolate from pure cacao, the Colombian farmers are able to make a living on their own terms, and both can feel good about growing the crop in a way that is not just less harmful to the Earth, but actually good for the Earth. 

“GoodSam didn’t have to do anything to make these farms regenerative or good for the environment,” says Terry. “The small farmers and indigenous tribes we work with have been doing this for hundreds of years—we just had to find them.” 

From Colombia to Thrive Market: Explore GoodSam Chocolate

GoodSam regenerative chocolate bars

The result of this incredible partnership between GoodSam and the Colombian farmers’ association is a delicious, pure chocolate that’s used in bars, chocolate chips, and other treats. GoodSam’s chocolate is organic, regeneratively grown, and completely vegan, but it’s unique in that it’s also keto-friendly (this is because it’s sweetened with allulose, a rare monosaccharide, instead of sugar). 

Learn more about a few of our favorite GoodSam chocolate products below.

GoodSam 55% Dark Chocolate Bar

The perfect bar for a sweet post-dinner treat, this dark chocolate bar is made with regeneratively grown, direct trade cacao from Colombia’s Plandas region, sugar-free allulose, and absolutely no dairy products.

GoodSam Dark Chocolate Chips

The next time you’re baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies, fold in some of these better-for-you chocolate chips. With 55% cacao and no added sugar, you’ll get a super rich, dark chocolate flavor. 

GoodSam Candy Coated Cashews

GoodSam uses their ethically sourced Colombian chocolate to coat crunchy cashews in this keto-friendly, gluten-free, and vegan snack that’s sweetened with sugar-free allulose and isomalt.

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This article is related to: Cacao, Food Industry, Regenerative Agriculture, Superfood

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Amy RobertsAmy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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