Endangered species

By Amanda Woodard

As a global shortage looms, David Guest explains how science can save chocolate.

Everyone loves chocolate but not everyone has found a way of integrating it into their life as well as Professor David Guest from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Sydney. After he completed his PhD in plant pathology – exploring the way plants defend themselves against pathogens – Guest was looking around for ways to apply his knowledge. “I wanted to somehow combine my interest in reggae music, cricket and chocolate.”

The West Indies seemed the obvious destination. Jamaica, in 1986, was still mourning the loss of Bob Marley and the West Indies were enjoying their most successful cricketing years, but the cocoa industry was in decline, he says. The discovery of oil had drawn labour away from cultivation.

As much as he wanted to continue working in the Caribbean, he concluded that he could accomplish more productive work on cocoa closer to home in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, both of which (like Jamaica) satisfy the two basic conditions necessary for the growth of cocoa, he says: “it thrives only within 15 to 20 degrees of the equator and it’s a labour-intensive crop.”

These factors explain why, of the annual global output of three to four million tonnes of cocoa beans, Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa contributes 40 per cent, followed by Ghana with 20 per cent and Indonesia, which harvests around 15 per cent.

However, with political and social instability a problem in Africa and the demand for chocolate increasing, especially among newly affluent populations such as China, India, Eastern Europe and Brazil, manufacturers are now concerned about a shortage of supply.

In a public lecture at the University in April, titled The Chocolate Crisis, Guest talked about the era of “peak chocolate”, echoing a term first used to describe the demand for oil. He explained that rising global demand is placing huge pressures on the supply and price of chocolate.

“Barry Callebaut, the world’s leading supplier of high-quality cocoa and chocolate products, estimates that by 2020 we are going to need another million tonnes a year because of the growing Asian and Eastern European market,” says Guest. (Incidentally, Germans consume the most chocolate per head: 11-12 kilos. Australians, North Americans and many European nations eat around 6 kilos. The Chinese consume around 30 grams each per year.)

Guest says that although supply has met demand in the last two years, over the past decade there has been a shortfall that has pushed cocoa prices up. Not only that but “around the world, farmers are losing 30 per cent of their crop to disease and if the weather is poor, they can lose the whole crop”.

The reason is poor management. “We have the technology to reduce pests and diseases but it has very little impact. There are very few farmers who grow cocoa the way they could, producing between 300 and 500 kilograms per hectare instead of several tonnes per hectare.”

Guest is trying to address the problem at a grassroots level, by finding ways of making smallholder production more efficient. He has been working with other researchers in PNG and Sulawesi, in Indonesia, to understand why smallholders, who are the majority producers of cocoa, aren’t adopting methods to improve their yields.

The industries in both countries are very different in their histories, structure and the chocolate they produce. German colonialists introduced a very high-quality plant into PNG and that reputation has stuck, with the chocolate notable for its fine, full flavour. By contrast, Java, colonised by the Dutch, was planted with high-quality cocoa, but the Indonesian industry now is based on low-quality plantings in Sulawesi. Nevertheless, years of underinvestment have led to problems in common for both countries.

“We know that cocoa is a major part of their income but they don’t invest much in improving production,” explains Guest. “The reason is that the plant is very resilient; once established (around five years) it always produces pods. Farmers use their trees like ATMs. Most cocoa farmers will have another job but when they need to pay hospital bills or school fees, they go out and harvest whatever cocoa pods they can find. It provides them with income when they need it and also establishes land tenure.”
Eventually, however, the plant and the soil gives up. After about 20 years without nurturing, the plant loses vigour and the soil is exhausted. “Farmers need to invest in compost, keep weeds down and have good sanitation to reduce disease and pests but most of the time it’s not a priority.”

Since 2000 when the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) was approached by the Indonesian government for help with the cocoa industry in Sulawesi, Guest and his colleagues have been working to bridge the gap in technical skills and farming support.

“Our work is helping the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute in East Java improve their skills and links with the industry in Sulawesi. So first we’re selecting high-yielding pest and disease-resistant cocoa genotypes, then developing and demonstrating how to improve soil fertility, agronomic aspects of production and pest and disease management. My colleagues are also examining how government policy supports growers, and how they go about promoting new technology used by farmers.”
It’s only in the past year or two that the researchers have begun to focus as much on the socio-economic factors that affect production as the scientific and technical issues.

“We’re also working with extension agencies – the people who advise farmers.” Guest says many of these people don’t have the confidence, skills or resources to offer advice and so remain office-bound. In turn, farmers get most of their information informally from cocoa buyers or local agricultural supply shops. “There is a risk of terrible mismanagement of agricultural chemicals that could lead to all sorts of potential problems,” says Guest.

But in the complex interaction between developed and developing countries, he is acutely aware that the manner in which aid is distributed is crucial to its success. “One of the worst things with aid projects is that people go into villages and say: ‘This is how you’re going to do it.’ Farmers’ eyes glaze over. [It’s important to] consult and be approachable and ask what do they want most help with.”

Once the specific problems of a group of farmers have been resolved, then they are recruited to become trainers. “The advantage is that they are local and other farmers trust them and can see the difference it has made to their business in terms of yields and disease prevention.”

Professor Guest says one of the reasons he likes working with a crop like cocoa is that by helping farmers get the most out of their beans, they’re earning a good income. “Then they’re in a much better position to buy food, build housing, access education and medical facilities. If you’re trying to alleviate poverty, then these things need to be linked. When grown sustainably, cocoa is a fantastic driver of development.”