Are chocaholics facing cold turkey?

2009-05-07 00:00

“DISEASES hurting chocolate crop” reads the headline in the London Daily Telegraph followed by a straphead ‘Scientists are warning of a possible chocolate shortage as disease ravages cocoa crops across the world’.

By the time the story reached this part of the world via the Weekly Telegraph the headline ran ‘World faces chocolate shortage’. Thus are pandemics born. Nobody in South Africa seemed worried.

None of the chocolate makers, importers and distributors that I contacted knew anything about this looming chocolate crisis.

Even Cadbury and Nestlé were unfazed. “Thank you for your inquiry. As far as we are aware, Cadbury South Africa is not facing any chocolate shortage issues at the moment, and we are unaware of any cocoa crops being affected by disease,” said a spokesperson. “As always, there certainly are potential risks from pest and disease, however these threats are factored into Cadbury’s global buying plans.”

So I sent them the Weekly Telegraph article. “Interesting!” was the response. “I will forward this to my colleagues in London for their review and will get back to you.”

So are chocaholics facing cold turkey? It all began with an article in New Scientist (the Telegraph article was a digest) published to coincide with Easter when chocolate consumption goes into overdrive. The article stated that chocolate trees were in increasing trouble.

Chocolate is made from the fermented, roasted seeds of the cacao tree and two diseases are attacking the trees. The Cacao swollen shoot virus (CSSV) — “can kill the trees, and threatens to slash this year’s spring crop by a third in the world’s biggest producer, Ivory Coast” — while in Brazil “a fungus called Witches’ Broom is doing the same”.

Researchers were reported to be “racing to sequence the cacao genome and find genes that can resist CSSV”.

The reason for the increasing impact of the diseases is a familiar story of overproduction and ecological short-sightedness.

“Cacao trees are native to the Amazon rainforest, but West Africa produces 70% of the world’s cocoa, virtually all on tiny, impoverished farms,” says New Scientist. “In recent years, demand for chocolate has mushroomed. The farmers cannot afford expensive fertiliser so they boost production by planting more cacao trees over a greater area. That means cutting down other trees that normally grow between cacao crops, which also replicate their rainforest origins and give them the protective shade they prefer.”

The CSSV virus originated in native African trees and is spread by common mealy bugs. The only method of combating the spread is by burning infected cacao trees to create disease firebreaks. Meanwhile, scientists at the Cacao Research Institute in Ghana (CRIG) have found cacao varieties that are partially resistant to the killer virus and are busy trying to breed resistant strains.

However, it will be some time before there are any results as new genetic stock imported from South America has to be quarantined for two years before going to Africa and then it’s another three years of experimental crossing before researchers can test for CSSV resistance. Enter the United States cavalry, in the shape of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is currently mapping genes for resistance to CSSV. If successful, the department intends creating a test kit so researchers in Africa can screen experimental crosses and plant resistant seedlings.

So, that’s the story so far: yes, there is disease but plans are in place, etc. Cadbury came back to me: “Cadbury continues to invest in research in this area, for example research into cocoa trees which are pest and disease resistant. Through the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership we are also investing in a farmer education programme to increase yields.”

Cadbury also helpfully suggested contacting the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) for comment, adding that “ICCO is currently saying there is a cocoa surplus”.

The ICCO is the United Nations of chocolate (it has a secretariat) and its membership consists of both cocoa-producing and cocoa-consuming countries.

“It is estimated that approximately 30% to 40% of the global annual cocoa production is lost because of pests and diseases,” says Moises Gomez, ICCO project officer. “In general, cocoa pests and pathogens have demonstrated a regional pattern of distribution, limited to specific areas. However, in recent years ... major cocoa-producing countries are aware that cocoa farmers face challenges not just from pests and pathogens that are indigenous to their region, but increasingly from foreign pests.”

Witches Broom and CSSV are just two of the villains, says Gomez. “There are other equally devastating diseases which cause severe losses to cocoa production”. These include Black Pod, Frosty Pod, and Cocoa Pod Borer.

To combat these diseases the ICCO Secretariat has developed long-term preventative measures. A project to find varieties resistant to Witches’ Broom achieved positive results and the disease is being effectively managed in Latin America following decades of devastation. “As a direct result of the project, 22 resistant planting materials had been released to cocoa farmers,” says Gomez, “cocoa production in Brazil had increased and there [are] clear signs that abandoned farms [are] being reactivated.”

The success of this project led to a strategy to prevent cocoa pests spreading globally and to boost the capacity of cocoa- producing countries to manage pests. Currently, the ICCO Secretariat is developing a project aimed at preventing and managing the global spread of cocoa pests in Africa to be followed by similar projects in Latin America and Asia.

In Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer, the country’s agricultural services have launched a project to fight CSSV, which poses a serious threat to the main southwestern and western growing areas. In Ghana, the Ghana Cocoa Board set up the CSSV Disease Control Unit, while Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and Ivory Coast have signed an agreement to tackle the disease.

So talk of a world shortage of chocolate is, to say the least, premature. Plus, according to Gomez, “for the coming years, the ICCO does not foresee a rise in chocolate prices”.

Pan(dem)ic over.

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