Speaking yesterday at a cocoa symposium in Washington DC, Raymond Schnell a geneticist at the US department of Agriculture announced the identification of gene markers for witches' broom (Crinipellis perniciosa) resistance - among the top three diseases that devastates cacao crops and the pathogen responsible for the decimation of cacao crops in Brazil, once a leading exporter of cacao and now an importer.
"The identification of these markers for witches' broom signifies the first major step in identifying the genes responsible for the ability to combat this pathogen," said Schnell.
World production for cocoa reached 3.1 million tonnes in 2002-2003, according to recent figures from the London-based International Cocoa Organisation, marking a 8 per cent rise on the year before. But the price is intimately linked to political, climatic and disease-associated problems in the leading producer countries - the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia.
Circumstances clearly demonstrated when fears of more supply problems during civil war in the Ivory Coast in 2002 sent cocoa prices skyrocketing from £43 to £1,636 a tonne - a near 17-year high - on London's futures market.
Cocoa production in the Ivory Coast, the world's leading producer, are expected to drop from the 1.3 million metric tons (MT) produced during 2002-03 to about 1.2 million MT during 2003-04.
Huddling together yesterday in Washington, the private and public sector also heard about new research into minimising pests and the spread of disease through the natural means of biocontrol. Researchers are currently investigating ways to minimise disease by identifying symbiotic organisms that inhabit the cocoa plant, while reducing the need for harsh chemical pesticides.
At the '"Theobroma Cacao: Ancient Crop, Medicinal Plant, Surprising Future" symposium, Edward Allen Herre from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute released follow-up results to his recently published data regarding various forms of fungi called endophytes. These fungi live between the cells of the cacao tree leaves where they block specific pathogens like Phytophthora, which causes black pot rot - the most widely spread pathogen which causes the most economic damage to cacao.
His group's research has found that the cocoa plant does not recognise these beneficial fungi as threats and supports diverse communities of endophytes.
"Our joint research efforts are moving us closer to providing a more reliable crop with higher yields of better quality beans without using high levels of costly and potentially environmentally unsound pesticides," said Dr. Schnell. "The outcome of our research will not only benefit the chocolate industry, but will benefit farmers who depend on cacao harvests by providing a more stable income, the reforestation of rainforest, and the economies of countries that depend on cacao export," he concluded.
In 2002, the Ivory Coast - with nearly 6 million people dependent on cocoa crops - earned nearly $2.1 million from cocoa, a slight increase from 2001 when the crop generated about $1.9 million.
New European chocolate rules (EU directive 2000/36/EC) that rolled into Europe last summer ushered in cost savings for chocolate manufacturers by allowing, for the first time, up to 5 per cent of cocoa butter in chocolate to be replaced by vegetable fats - less costly - and still qualify as chocolate. The move has opened up the market for CBE, (Cocoa Butter Equivalents), with ingredients companies such as Scandinavian firms Karlshamns and Aarhus pushing forward strategies to encourage new product development and chocolate formulations.