A cure for cocoa?

By Peter Stiff

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Cocoa, Plant, International cocoa organisation

The discovery of factors that help the cacao plant resist diseases
could eventually lead to a price drop for cocoa, scientists claim.

Cocoa prices have traditionally been very volatile leading to uncertainty in sourcing supplies and unstable prices for food companies.

Scientists from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) claim to have located the genetic markers that help cocoa resist disease.

The findings, which were presented yesterday at the biennial symposium on cocoa, could help cocoa farmers tackle diseases that endanger cocoa supplies.

Cacao trees, farmed for their cocoa pods, often come under threat from diseases such as witches' broom, frosty pod and black pod.

The scientists found the markers for resistance to witches' broom, a disease caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa, the main killer of Theobroma cacao trees.

The disease initially came from native wild cocoa and if prevented much larger quantities of cocoa would be produced in South America.

Witches' broom prevents cocoa pods from being formed and infects mature pods. The presence of the disease also deters many small farmers from growing the crop.

The disease is particularly prevalent in South and Central America and is believed by the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) to have resulted in tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, especially in Brazil.

At the symposium, "Theobroma Cacao: The Tree of Change", ARS geneticist Ray Schnell yesterday described recent progress in cacao breeding programmes.

If breeding programmes could be developed as a result of the research it would be an enormous boost to the cocoa producing industry. However the discovery is far from an immediate cure to the disease.

"Depending on the breading technique it would take five-ten years until the discovery could be implemented and longer for the crop to mature,"​ said Dr Michael Shaw of Reading University's Plant Sciences department.

Shaw acknowledged that the findings were a step on the way to tackling the disease.

"The disease caused a collapse in Brazilian production in the 80's and 90's and thus resistance would be hugely beneficial to cocoa farmers,"​ he said. "However, there are many different strains of the disease and to stop it reoccurring continuous breading would be needed."

This development follows news in the later half of 2005 that the fungal pathogens causing witches' broom and frosty pod may be linked.

The discovery was made by molecular biologist Cathie Aime who analysed the plant's DNA.

The ICCO estimates world cocoa production at about three million tonnes a year, 70 per cent of which comes from Africa.

The symposium, being held in Washington DC yesterday and today, features presentations on plant science and sustainability along with discussions on issues facing cocoa-producing regions.

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