BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— Planning to indulge in a little chocolate this Halloween? You’re
not alone; a new survey reveals nearly 75 percent of Americans choose chocolate as their favorite Halloween
When Illinois Wesleyan University’s William Munro looks at a chocolate, however, he
sees more than a tempting morsel wrapped in brightly colored paper. As an expert on
international food economy, Munro uses candy to teach first-year students to think
critically about what they eat.
“A candy is loaded not only with many calories, but with many different stories,”
said Munro, who is the Betty Ritchie-Birrer ’47 and Ivan Birrer, Ph.D. Endowed Professor
and a member of Illinois Wesleyan’s political science faculty. “Stories of taste and
travel, of culture and economy, of empire and industry all converge in our mouths,
making America quite literally a ‘melting pot.’
“Chocolate has a rich, dark history,” he added, pun fully intended.
Munro’s course “The Social History of a Candy Bar” is a Gateway Colloquia course designed
to develop students’ proficiency in writing. It’s also one of the University’s cluster
of liberal arts courses centered on the theme “Unraveling Inequality.”
Munro doesn’t want his students to feel guilty about eating chocolate for societal
reasons, but instead wants to increase their understanding.
“It takes enormous resources, human and otherwise, to make chocolate,” he said. “We
should look at everything we eat in the same way, with the understanding that what
we eat and how we eat is shaped by a wide network of social, cultural and historical
The course traces the complexities of chocolate’s journey in becoming a worldwide
commodity. In its early recorded history (early 19th century), one-third of the world’s
cocoa supply came from Venezuela, and half of it was consumed in Spain. Today, however,
70 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, and 40 percent of it comes
from that region’s Côte d’Ivoire alone, Munro said.
“If you eat a chocolate kiss for Halloween, the cocoa almost certainly came from West
Africa and it almost certainly involved child labor,” Munro explained. “Some of it
is coerced labor, and some it is children working on family farms.”
Large chocolate producers are now paying some attention to these conditions, Munro
said, partly because civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire involved human trafficking, including
child trafficking. Profits from cocoa production helped fund the conflict, Munro said.
The sugar that gives chocolate its sweetness likewise has a global history. Localized
sources of sweetness such as honey gave way to the production of sugar as a commodity
crop with the colonization of the Caribbean Islands in the mid-17th century, he said.
“Cocoa was brought from the New World, but sugar was taken to the New World and became established as a major slave crop in the Caribbean,” Munro
said. Today sugar cane or beet is grown in over 100 countries, and the U.S. imports
it from at least 26 countries ranging from Swaziland in southern Africa to Switzerland,
Chocolate could only become a mass consumer commodity through the emergence of a capitalist
world economy made possible by the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Munro said.
In his course, he also introduces students to the history of Cadbury’s, the British
confectionery company founded in 1824, as an example of the rise of multinational
Munro grew up eating Cadbury’s chocolates in his native South Africa. As a political
scientist during the dismantling of apartheid, his interest in state formation grew
out of the questions his countrymen and women were asking in regard to what kind of
social system should take its place.
“South Africans knew very little about state formation and politics in the rest of
the continent,” Munro said. He then studied in Zimbabwe, where most citizens worked
the land on small-scale farms.
“If you want to understand political change, you had to look at the agrarian system
as most people were involved with that,” he added. His growing interest and expertise
in the international food economy developed with his understanding of the influence
of international markets and global commodity systems on African farms.
Munro is the co-author of Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over
Biotechnology (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), which explores the debate over genetically
modified seeds. He has also contributed book chapters to texts such as Reconstructing Biotechnologies: Critical Social Analysis (Wageningen Academic Press, 2008) and Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research (Stanford University Press, 2008). Munro is the 2012 winner of the Kemp Foundation
Award for Teaching Excellence at Illinois Wesleyan.