Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 10 Episode 15
Aired on October 29, 2023
Main segment: Cocoa production
Other segments: 2023 Argentine presidential election
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John: Welcome to “Last Week Tonight.” I’m John Oliver, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a busy week. Israel’s war with Hamas continued, with hundreds of hostages still unaccounted for, while the country continues its relentless bombing campaign in Gaza. Meanwhile, in Washington, republicans finally chose a new house speaker, Mike Johnson, a man with resting assistant principal face. Very little was known about Johnson before this week – senator Susan Collins even said, “I was going to google him this morning.” But when people actually started doing that, the results weren’t great.
Before entering office, Johnson called abortion “a holocaust” that has been repeated every day for 32 years, since 1973’s Roe versus Wade. As a congressman, he’s co-sponsored at least three bills that would ban the procedure nationwide. Johnson is also staunchly anti-gay right. In 2004, he called homosexuality “inherently unnatural” and voted against legalizing same-sex marriage.
John: Wow, pretty bad. Although, let’s face it, it’s not like the new republican speaker “wasn’t” going to have a laundry list of horrifying opinions. It’d be “more” surprising if he threw a couple of good ones in there, too. “He believes abortion is a holocaust, that Friday should be part of the weekend, gay marriage is inherently unnatural, we need more women in STEM and there should be parks where adults can ride down the giant inflatable slide they use when planes crash.” And I’m sure there’ll be more to say about Johnson going forward, but for now, we’re going to turn to Argentina. Birthplace of both the pope and the actual god. Argentina is suffering a severe economic crisis – with inflation running close to 140 percent. It held its presidential election last Sunday, and as no candidate won outright, there’ll now be a runoff between the top two candidates. One is the center-left finance minister whose government has been widely blamed for the current financial crisis. And the other, Javier Milei – who, yes, does look like this – well, I’ll let introduce himself.
“Hi! I am General Ancap. I come from liberland.” “My mission is to kick the ever-loving shit out of Keynesian and collectivist fuckers trying to ruin our lives.”
John: Yeah, just a classic, run-of-the-mill presidential candidate, dressed like Mr. Peanut dressed as a wizard dressed as Batman, pledging to kick the shit out of “Keynesians.” If I had one note for that superhero, it’s that John Maynard Kanes probably isn’t the most compelling super-nemesis. Few economists are. There’s a reason the Avengers fought Thanos and not Alan Greenspan. But Milei is a lot. “General Ancap” is presumably a reference to his political philosophy of anarcho-capitalism – “a strand of libertarianism that seeks to abolish the state in favor of unfettered free markets.” And he campaigned on heavy cuts, suggesting slashing public spending by 15% of GDP and eliminating most taxes. He also has a controversial plan to swap the country’s currency for the US dollar, has said he wants to “blow up” the central bank, and has even smashed models of it in campaign videos and also in pinata form in TV appearances. He’s also symbolized his desire to slash the government by waving chainsaws around in public, an image his supporters have run with, wearing chainsaw masks to vote for him, and even while doing interviews.
The fight continues for Javier Milei, far-right populist who wants to see spending slashed. The chainsaw has become a symbol of this pledge.
Milei is something different that hasn’t been tested before.
John: Okay! Not to break my one rule and argue with a guy dressed as a chainsaw, but, lots of ideas haven’t been tested before. We also haven’t tried all-trampoline retirement homes, or letting raccoons be chief of surgery. That’s because some ideas are just bad, and I’d argue maybe giving control of the third largest economy in Latin America to a guy who looks like he was escorted out of a comic-con panel for asking Scarlet Johannson too many questions might be one of them. And it’s not just his costumes and props that are colorful – take this talk-show interview, where he goes into more detail about his sex life than you are possibly expecting.
In tantra, less than 45 minutes is considered premature ejaculation.
Less than how much?
45 Minutes. Each man has his own dynamic. In my particular case, I ejaculate once every three months.
John: Is it incredible? I think it might actually be extremely credible. Because I completely believe that the guy we saw screaming at dead economists, smashing miniature banks on TV, and waving a chainsaw in the streets may be a little, and I’m sorry for saying this, backed up. And then there’s Milei’s obsession with his dogs. He’s constantly posing for photos with them, or holding up portraits gifted by his supporters. Just watch as this interview on a talk show gets totally derailed when he sees a photo of his dog Conan. You don’t need to know what’s being said here – I promise, you’ll pick up the gist of it.
John: OK, that is pretty likable. He got distracted by his own dog the way dogs get distracted by any squirrel. It is hard for me to criticize that because that is also how I respond if I ever see a picture of Conan. It’s Conan! The point is, we all love things to the extent that they completely distract us, whenever they – it’s Conan. It is understandable that he fails to pay attention.
Quit staring at me, John! I’m not a piece of meat!
John: No, of course you’re not. I’m sorry, Conan. I truly apologize. Anyway, like I said: the things we love can be distracting. So it’s clear: Milei loves his dogs. But you should know: while I’ve been saying “dogs,” I really should have just said “dog,” because all of them are genetic copies of his one former dog, Conan. And the story gets even weirder. Because calls his cloned dogs – of which there are at least four “the best strategists in the world”, and according to one biographer, trusts them to a genuine fault.
The dogs he has now are divided into a sort of cabinet. He also believes that Conan, the dog that died, has reincarnated in one of the clones. That dog helps him, and I quote, “with the general strategy.” Then Murray advises him in economics, and Lucas is the one that helps him see the future and learn from his mistakes. It’s almost like an official cabinet.
John: Okay. At this point, I feel the need to tell you. We didn’t invent this man for this show. I get how an “anarcho-capitalist, chainsaw-brandishing, dog-cloning presidential candidate who looks like a waterlogged Billie Joe Armstrong and sees his dogs as some sort of clairvoyant, reincarnated force functioning as a political cabinet” – could seem like he was tailor-made, in a lab, specifically for this show. But he wasn’t. His dogs were, but he wasn’t. This is a distressingly real person. And while there is something very funny about a politician who workshops his ideas with his four dog, it gets less fun when you see what those ideas are. Because he’s called for expanding gun ownership and outlawing abortion, referred to global warming as a “socialist lie”, has called Trump one of the best presidents in the history of the United States, and described the pope as an “embarrassing communist,” a “piece of shit,” and a “potato.” And look I know we weren’t expecting the man with a bunch of cloned dogs and a once-per-quarter jizz schedule to have “good” opinions. But those are strikingly bad. And Milei has a lot of support, particularly from young men. And the thing is, a desire for some sort of radical change is understandable, given the depths of Argentina’s financial crisis. People’s earnings and savings have been wiped out, and around 40 percent of Argentines are living in poverty. Things are really bad there. And remember: milei’s opponent is the current finance minister, so he’s tied pretty closely to it. It’s frankly no wonder that some Argentines – like this woman voting last Sunday – are pretty depressed about the options in front of them.
We don’t have a really good option. I didn’t came here and said I know who I’m going to vote. I was like I don’t really know because nothing – nothing is and I believe that nothing is good.
John: Right, when your options are more of the same or emo edgelord tucker carlson it’s understandable to believe that nothing is good. And unfortunately, the worse things get, the easier it is for Milei to make the case that any change – no matter how untested or dangerous – is better than the current system. So while I agree Argentines deserve something new, I also think they deserve a lot better than this chainsaw-wielding, backed-up superhero and his xeroxed dog quartet.
John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns chocolate. The star attraction in Neopolitan ice cream. Nothing against vanilla and strawberry, it’s just that one is a euphemism for boring sex, and the other is fruit, and fruit is simply not dessert. Chocolate is the greatest – just watch as this baby gets a first taste of it.
Are you ready?
Yeah, baby! Same! And I hope it savors that chocolate high. Because I think we all know – the rest of human experience is pretty much downhill from there. Everyone loves chocolate – that’s why we use it for everything – from beauty products to sculptures, to breakfast cereal. Although some arguably love it a little too much, like the host of this cooking show.
There’s a component, a substance in chocolate called “phenylethylamine” and what that fancy word does is it slightly elevates your blood pressure and your heart rate, and they tell me that it’s a sensation that’s not unlike having an orgasm. I don’t know! Maybe that’s why people love chocolate so much, but, anyway, let me get back to our step here.
John: Okay, first, what a long, weird way to tell people that you’ve never had an orgasm. Second, I can’t believe there’s a chemical that makes your brain horny and they named it “phenylethylamine.” That’s not a sexy name. “Erotisol. Seductilust. Dat-assoline.” All and just to be very clear; all of those are free and available. Eating chocolate is nothing like having an orgasm. Unless you count the fact that when boys do it, it’s messier. But chocolate isn’t just making people horny, it’s also making a lot of money. Globally, it’s a $140 billion dollar-a-year industry, and at this point, you might be sitting at home thinking, “Hold on – I’ve seen this show before.” This feels like it’s going to be one of the fun stories, but is it about to take a turn? I’ve got a jumbo bag of fun-size Snickers I’m going to be handing out to tiny ironmen, Elsas and Luigis in 48 hours. Are you going to make that weird for me? Yes, I am. And also, don’t bullshit me. Half that bag’s gonna be gone by Halloween, and you know it. But the reason this is about to take a turn is, for all the money and happiness surrounding chocolate, there’s one group that doesn’t get to share in it, and that’s the farmers who grow cocoa in the first place. The majority have never even tasted chocolate. And that’s something that reporters and documentarians love to try and remedy on camera, perhaps none as patronizingly as this.
These farmers have been growing beans for decades. They’re about to get their first taste of chocolate.
You have never tried chocolate?
That is your cocoa!
John: Well, to those who thought I’m the most annoying version of a loud man on TV with a British accent, looks like you owe me an apology. Because that’s pretty condescending. “Attention, former subjects, we noticed that you have not once tasted the fruits of your interminable toil, so allow me to present you with the generous gift of a single kit-kat. That is your cocoa!” And the reason most farmers haven’t tried chocolate before is, they can’t afford it. More than 60 percent of cocoa comes from just two West African countries – Ivory Coast, and Ghana. And researchers have found that, in those places, between 73 and 90 percent of cocoa farmers do not earn a living income, with 30 to 58 percent earning below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line. And there is something a bit weird about a product so synonymous for spreading joy, and giving babies what’s basically a cocaine rush, abandoning those who grow its key ingredient to grinding poverty. Because even if you had a sense that cocoa production had issues, the truth is, from the land it’s grown on, to the working conditions of those who harvest it, it’s worse than you may realize. So given that, as we prepare for our annual tradition of stuffing as much of it in our faces as humanly possible, tonight, let’s talk about chocolate. And let’s start with the fact that cocoa is mostly grown on very small, family-run plots. There are about half a million of them in Ivory Coast, and another 800,000 in Ghana. Harvesting cocoa pods is labor-intensive, and done entirely by hand. And by the way – what’s inside them may not be what you’re picturing in your mind.
Ivans Kanube cracks open the pods to extract the sweet, slimy bean, which at this stage has a flavor like lychee fruit. Once the cocoa is collected, it’s left to ferment under banana leaves for about seven days.
John: Yeah, that slimy bean soup is cocoa. Chocolate starts out as a gluey white insect larva that comes out of a big tree egg, and it’s only after a long process that that fermenting forest jizz becomes something more appetizing. Or in the case of a mounds bar, even less appetizing. From the farm, the cocoa then passes through a number of hands on its way to the chocolate companies – from the people who collect the beans, to the warehouses who store them – each of whom gets paid for their part in the chain. But at a certain point, they all feed into one narrow bottleneck, as this expert explains in an almost unnervingly soothing way.
In a way, the story of chocolate is a little bit like an hourglass, where you have millions of smallholders growing cocoa at the very beginning of the story, and at the end of the story, you have millions of consumers eating chocolate. But right at the center of the hourglass are a handful of extremely powerful companies. These companies are the cocoa traders.
John: Okay. That was a very good description of how the industry works, from what I can only assume is a nine-hour YouTube video titled, “Woman explains cocoa sector inequality asmr fall asleep now high quality headphones on”. But it’s true – the industry is dominated by just a handful of cocoa trading companies, the most powerful of which are the so-called big three – Cargill, Barry Callebaut and Ofi, which together buy and process about 60 percent of the world’s cocoa. They then sell to a handful of major chocolate companies: Mars, Mondelez – which owns Cadbury – Ferrero, Nestlé, and Hershey, which together sell over half the world’s chocolate. And when you have so many farmers, and so few buyers, the buyers clearly have a big advantage. That’s why only about 6 percent of the value of a chocolate bar makes its way back to the farmer. And look – I’m not saying those companies aren’t adding real value to their part of the process. They are! This Halloween, try offering a Spiderman a Kitkat or a handful of sticky white bean larvae and see which they prefer. But there are clearly massive disparities in who reaps the benefits of this extremely profitable industry. And I will say – there are mechanisms in place to at least help stabilize the amount farmers earn. Both Ghana and Ivory Coast set minimum prices that farmers receive for their cocoa. The problem is, those prices are not only difficult to enforce, but crucially, they’re not enough to cover the costs of farming. And so some farmers, most of whom are experiencing extreme poverty, have resorted to trying to increase their earnings by growing more cocoa on land that’s protected by the government. Which is illegal, because it can do significant environmental damage.
Desperate farmers supplement their crops by growing cocoa trees in a protected forest, where the uncultivated soil is more fertile, and stolen land is, in effect, free of charge. What’s left behind is known as a skeleton forest.
John: Okay, let’s face it: it was only a matter of time before the phrase “skeleton forest” appeared on this show. Because if there’s a sinister combination of words out there, we’re gonna stumble over it. Tumor elections? Ghost abuse? Murder pollution? Stay tuned. All those are coming up. But it’s not just environmental damage – there’s also significant human cost in cocoa farming, which has been well-known for a while. Around 20 years ago, a series of news stories and a documentary found that young children – some of whom had been enslaved or trafficked – were working on cocoa farms that supplied major chocolate companies. And in the wake of public horror over this, companies didn’t do themselves any favors with how they responded. Just listen to the answers that this Dutch journalist got when he asked Nestle about whether children were involved in making its chocolate.
Children are working in virtually every single agricultural setup around the world.
Okay? As a matter of fact, when I was 11 or 12 years old, I went to help a farmer. I did not get paid – paid for it. I did it because I thought it was – it was fun. That was child labor. A child working.
And that’s the same.
It’s not the same. Evidently. I didn’t need to do that. Okay?
John: Right. Not to stress the most obvious point in the universe, but – doing something for fun isn’t the same thing as doing it to survive. It’s the difference between being in an escape room and being in a Saw movie. Sure, they’re both equally bad first-date ideas, but that’s where the similarities end. And look – I will give him this: a lot of child labor does consist of kids working on their own families’ cocoa farms. Though even in those cases, they can be doing so in hazardous conditions. And also – watch as that Nestle spokesperson accidentally walks into a pretty damaging admission of exactly why they might be having to do that in the first place.
For a poor farmer in–in Africa, often the help that he gets from his children is vital in order to maintain the standard of living of the family.
Because they are–they–
Because they are so desperately poor.
Because they don’t get paid enough by Nestle, or by the companies they work for.
All right, that’s it. Thank you very much.
John: Wow. It’s very funny to me that he thought ending that call when he did was somehow “avoiding” implicating himself. “Look, the farmers have to make their children work for them because they are so poor because they are not paid a living wage by Nestle, the company that I – you know what? Nice try, you’re breaking up, I’m going into a tunnel. Goodbye! Whew, that was a close one. But I think I got away with it.” And, again – it’s not just kids working on their family farms. Children have been known to be forced, or trafficked, to work in cocoa production. And while, because of the nature of this crime, exact numbers aren’t known, one survey estimated that in Ivory Coast, over a four-year period, 2,000 children were victims of forced labor, while in Ghana, it was 14,000. And back in the 2000s, outrage over this actually spurred US lawmakers to take action. First, they considered mandating labels for chocolate, indicating whether or not it was made with child slave labor. But the chocolate industry then lobbied that down to a voluntary agreement to eliminate the “worst forms of child labor”, promising to get it done by July 2005. That agreement later became known as the Harkin-Engel protocol, after the two lawmakers who’d pushed for it – but when the deadline rolled around, Senator Harkin had this unfortunate update.
Though I was disappointed that the July 1st deadline was not fully met by the industry, they have given us a commitment – a commitment to achieving a certification system which can be expanded across the cocoa growing areas of West Africa, and which will cover 50% of the cocoa-growing areas of Ivory Coast and Ghana in three years’ time. I’m very pleased with this commitment.
John: Are you? Because if so, I’m genuinely jealous of your infinite capacity for trusting others. “Ah, I see from the first panel of today’s Peanuts comic that Lucy is finally going to let Charlie Brown kick the football. While I was disappointed by her actions in the past, it seems that a new day has brought a sense of integrity within this young girl, and I am very excited to move my gaze down the page and see this commitment honored in – what? She did it again? And predictably, the companies didn’t meet that new deadline either. Once 2008 rolled around, they kicked it to 2010, then pushed it “again”, to 2020 – while simultaneously downgrading their goal to just getting a 70 percent reduction in child labor, rather than eliminating it entirely, then missed that deadline too. And the companies almost certainly knew they wouldn’t be keeping their promises here. As the former head of the international cocoa initiative put it, “Was there any chance of child labor being eradicated by the original 2005 deadline?” No, never. And at that point, why bother setting a date at all? If your friend agrees to meet you for dinner at 7, then pushes it to 7:30, then 8, and finally says “Be there in 20 – years not minutes,” it kind of feels like they never had any intention of getting dinner in the first place. And I will say – it’s not like the chocolate companies have done nothing. They all started flashy-looking programs with “cocoa” in their names that promised to be vigilant about monitoring for child labor, and produced impressive-looking ads featuring happy farmers, and websites showing how carefully they monitor their supply chain. But the reality hasn’t remotely lived up to the rhetoric. Last year, some journalists looked at a map of farms on Mondelez’s “cocoa life” website, then sent a camera crew to Ghana to check some out, and you’ll never guess what they found.
It didn’t take long to find children working on a farm matching the coordinates listed on the Cocoa Life website. The team filmed two young boys aged 10 and 11, harvesting cocoa pods using long sticks with sharp hooks and wearing no protective clothing.
John: It’s true, they went to just one of the farms listed on their site – a site filled with claims that child labor is completely unacceptable – and instantly found child labor. And I don’t know what statement Mondelez can release in the wake of that, other than maybe, “Honestly did not think anyone would actually check.” And if you’re thinking, “Obviously we can’t trust companies to monitor themselves – that’s why there should be a third party involved.” The thing is, those have also existed for years – chocolate companies have long purchased at least some of their beans from third-party organizations like these, who certify the farmers who supply them have met certain child labor and environmental standards. You might have seen one of these logos on a chocolate bar and felt reassured by it. But while advocates say some of these organizations have improved conditions somewhat, these logos just aren’t the guarantee you might want them to be. For a start, while the organizations pay farmers a small premium for meeting their standards, those premiums might not even cover the cost of complying with the program. But also, inspections for the labels are required of fewer than 1 in 10 farms annually. And just watch what happened when reporters went undercover as chocolate company executives and visited a contractor who did audits for “Utz”, one of those third-party organizations. Because he explains to them exactly why he’s confident that he won’t find child labor on any farm he visits.
When you go to them you’re not going to see any children.
John: That is true – auditors give advance notice of inspections. Which is ridiculous. Because that’s never going to be reliable. If you tell your teenager “I’m checking your backpack for cigarettes next Tuesday,” then great news, you’re not gonna find any. Now, I have to tell you, Utz has maintained that it hold auditors to the highest standards, although you have just seen those standards and – I don’t know about you – but they didn’t seem that high to me. As for Mondelez, who, remember, – as high to me. Turned out to have child labor at one of its suppliers in Ghana, it said that it was “deeply concerned” by these incidents, and, okay that makes two of us, mondelez. It also wants you to know that it has a child labor monitoring system in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Which is very reassuring, until you remember it only took a documentary crew one flight to Ghana to prove that the system is, at best, deeply inadequate. And that’s the thing – all these companies will say they’re concerned about child labor, and that they’ve spent a lot of money trying to fix it. By one estimate, as of 2019, they’d spent more than $150 million to address this issue. But that’s over 18 years, and while they were collecting $103 billion in sales annually. Meaning that over two decades, they’ve spent just 0.1 percent of one year’s sales. And come on! M&M’s must’ve spent more than that, fine-tuning exactly how fuckable the green m&m is. And for all the companies’ claims of concern, the fact remains: according to the US Department of Labor an estimated 1.5 million children work in cocoa production in Ghana and Ivory Coast, many of whom are engaged in dangerous tasks. Or, as a Washington Post investigation concluded, “the odds are substantial that a chocolate bar bought in the United States is the product of child labor.” In fact, the persistence of it in the supply chain is an open secret. Just watch as some young workers end up joking about it when asked by visiting journalists.
John: Yeah, we all fondly remember being 21. Small frame, childlike voice, another guy has to constantly remind you you’re 21. Just classic early twenties stuff. And I know they were laughing there – and that clip was honestly kind of charming. But the truth is, for others, the stories are pretty harrowing – like this young girl who said that at this point, she’d already been farming cocoa for five years.
I was brought here by my aunt, I was told I would be helping with the baby, but instead, I only do farming.
She says she wants to go to school, but her uncle can’t afford to send her.
My uncle says he struggles to pay for his own children, so if I join them, he will not be able to buy the school books.
We asked if she misses her family.
Do you hear from them?
Have you ever been back to visit them since you came here?
John: That’s heartbreaking. And the truth is, there are a lot more clips out there like that one than there are of kids joking around about being 21. And at this point, you might be wondering – what can we do differently? Well, I’ll admit – it’s really complicated. Child labor in these regions is caused by a myriad of issues, from poor infrastructure to limited access to education. But to a significant extent, it is caused by poverty. A poverty that is actively perpetuated by these chocolate companies. And if they really want to remedy things, a good first step would simply be to pay farmers more. And companies may balk at that, saying they don’t set the price, the market does. But as this advocate points out, that’s a pretty lousy excuse.
Every trader and every multinational I speak to always say, but that’s the world market price. We have no influence on that at all. But you buy a quarter of the world’s cocoa beans. How can you not influence the price?
John: Exactly. And look, I’m no economist, despite winning “most likely to be an economist, based on appearance” back in preschool. But if you buy that much of the global supply in something, you definitely have some sway over how much it costs. And the thing is, there are models here companies could look to. Remember that Dutch journalist making the guy from Nestle squirm? As a result of that segment, he actually created his own chocolate company, Tony’s Chocolonely. It works hard to ensure its supply chain is free from child or slave labor. And – importantly – ensures that the people who grow its cocoa aren’t in dire poverty. Here’s its former head of sustainability, explaining how it sets the price for the beans that it buys.
We calculate how big the gap is between the government-set price and the living income price, and we pay that gap as an extra premium.
For the spring harvest, the premium was about $63 higher than what’s set by the government, meaning Tony’s paid almost double for each bag of beans.
John: That’s great. And it says something that Tony’s were somehow able to pay farmers double the going rate, despite being a mid-size Dutch cocoa company whose logo, by the way, looks like a casual dining restaurant operated by-and-for clowns. If these guys can do it, there’s frankly no reason why these can’t as well. And to be fair, even Tony’s own website admits the scale of the challenge here, saying, “We have never found an instance of modern slavery in our supply chain, however, we do not guarantee our chocolate is 100% slave free. While we are doing everything we can to prevent slavery and child labor, we are also realistic.” And I have to say, I appreciate that – because there is a difference between recognizing how much there is to do, and simply not doing enough. And I know these are companies, not charities, whose job it is to make money, not save the world. But that means that they’ll only care about this problem exactly as much as they are forced to. So if we’re serious about getting child labor out of our chocolate, we can’t keep relying on pinky promises and the honor system – we need tough legislation that requires companies to do the right thing. And it’s not like this is the only industry where exploitation in other countries is the norm – I could just as easily have done this piece about coffee or palm oil. And we actually talked about trafficking and child labor in the US farm system this year. But experts themselves say of chocolate, in few industries is the evidence of objectionable practices so clear, the industry’s pledges to reform so ambitious, and the breaching of those promises so obvious. Look, we’ve known for 20 years what the problems are here, and we haven’t bothered to fix them. But if we do, then imagine this, one day, maybe, just maybe, we can get back to a point where chocolate can once more give us the simple uncomplicated joy of this.
John: That is our show. Thank you so much for watching. We will see you next week. Good night.
[Cheers and applause]
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