A UK research project aims to ensure the sustainability of future cocoa production through suggesting ways cocoa breeders can produce varieties more adapted to climate change.
Ghana and the Ivory Coast produce 70 per cent of the world’s supply of cocoa, with the beans also a critical source of income for farmers in these regions.
But fears that dry weather and winds would cause a dramatic tailing off of the region's production have impacted cocoa trading in New York and London, with the commodity hitting 30 year highs in January.
Paul Hadley, professor of horticultural crop physiology at the University of Reading said that the trigger for the project was not any one particular harvest of late but instead a growing awareness over the last 20 years of an obvious change in the climate in West Africa, with increasingly drier conditions there.
He said that the five year project, which is funded by Cocoa Research UK, intends to confront directly the problems impacting the cocoa crop as well as quantifying the impact of climate change on West Africa.
Interim results of the research are expected in three years time and will inform future work of study centres such as the Ghana Institute of Cocoa Research, said Hadley.
He said the knock on effect of the overall project will be an improvement of the livelihood of farmers in West Africa through more consistent output and secure a future supply of cocoa for the confectionery industry.
Hadley told ConfectioneryNews.com that the team will have access to 400 accessions from the university’s International Cocoa Quarantine Centre (ICQC) that provide a range of different genotypes of cocoa plants and will enable study of the interaction of climate change variables on cocoa growth, development, yield and quality.
Approximately half of the accessions at Reading have been received from the International Cocoa Genebank in Trinidad, he explained, with the remainder coming from genebanks in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil, Columbia, Malaysia, Peru and the US.
The researchers, he added, will also have access to the university’s cocoa physiology glasshouse, which was constructed last year and has six independently controlled compartments, each capable of growing mature, pod-bearing trees.
Each compartment has supplementary lighting and moveable shade screens and a central computer control system which can be used to simulate specific cocoa growing regions representative of current and predicted future climates within the regions, he explained.
“The facility allows us to carry out work under controlled conditions – research that could not be done in the field.
We will be assessing bean size, lipid content and potentially other quality characteristics such as flavour,” said Hadley.
The professor said that the cocoa research team at Reading work in collaboration with the confectionery industry and has received funding for other university projects on cocoa research that are currently underway such as one that is aiming to tackle swollen shoot disease
Cocoa production in the Ivory Coast in particular has been hindered insufficient efforts to tackle pod disease, which, according to industry experts, limit its readiness to be able to respond to long-term growth in demand for chocolate.