Entry: Bob Lumsden
As a chocolate lover I am pleased to see cocoa as a commodity is at last getting the due attention it deserves. This is not just on how to make the best chocolate with the finest ingredients but also how it is grown in the tropical regions of the world by small farmers and what new research is needed to make this crop sustainable. As a research advisor to the World Cocoa Foundation, and a former US Department of Agricultural Researcher, it is indeed wonderful to see in the past few years the scientific community from around the world coming together, networking and accomplishing some very important breakthroughs. In the past cacao research was limited and has led people to remark that the chocolate industry is in the 21st century but I supported by a 19th century science!! I see this transition first hand from the information I receive from around the world on their current scientific activities.
Research is not only important to tackle problems associated with low productivity, pests and diseases, environmental impact etc, but also technology transfer to small farmers, and above all better incomes, are all important for the long range sustainability of the crop. Sustainability, social, environmental and economic cultivation would mean reliable, quality cocoa available for use in manufacture of quality chocolate.
The problems facing cacao farmers currently are significant, with an estimated loss to farmers, but also to cocoa bean handlers and processors, of over 30% of the crop. This is a lot of potential cocoa that is lost and that would provide income to farmers and the raw material for an expanding demand of cocoa to countries developing a taste for chocolate, for the recently new demand for cocoa for health benefits, for organically produced cocoa, and for an emerging population of chocolate connoisseurs who are interested in distinctive flavors. The most notable problems facing cacao farmers are the fungal plant pathogens that cause the diseases called witches’ broom, frosty pod, and black pod rot. Presently these diseases are confined more or less geographically to certain cacao growing areas.
* Black pod rot (pictured above) is worldwide and the most damaging in that it is the cause of considerable losses in all regions.
* Witches’ broom is mostly in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Trinidad and Panama, but it could spread to Central America and Mexico and potentially to other growing areas in Africa and Southeast Asia.
* Frosty pod is currently in northern South America and Central America and recently the epidemic has reached Mexico. This, of the three pathogens, is the most dangerous to cacao cultivation because of the ease with which the spores of the fungus can be distributed accidentally, or perhaps even deliberately.
The picture belows shows a tree in Ecuador with both frosty pod (left) and witches broom (right).
Other diseases caused by fungi and bacteria are also of emerging concern but have not reached epidemic levels. Insects cause damage to cacao pods growing on the tree but also as post-harvest problems important during storage and shipping. By far, the worst insect problem is caused by the cocoa pod borer, which so far is confined to Indonesia and Malaysia, and a new infestation was recently removed from Papua New Guinea.
Many excellent programs are underway, often carried out and funded by producer countries, but also by consuming countries, and to a significant extent by World Cocoa Foundation member companies. These research programs are developing excellent technologies to cultivate cacao and produce quality cocoa, however the effort, in time and extent, as compared to support other commodities are receiving, needs more support.
Two approaches are needed, one a short term objective to develop integrated crop production systems to address immediate problems and agronomic problems and a more, long term objectives to improve the genetic makeup of cacao cultivars by conventional breeding. Eventually, modern tools developed by knowing the genetic make up of cacao, one can hasten the eventual delivery of an ideal cocoa tree which is immune to a pests and disease and also with improved yield and quality to the small farmer.
If you would like to learn more about our research efforts and how you might get involved, please contact me, and join our monthly research update report which is sent electronically each month.