How Plant Science Is Helping Cocoa Farmers in West Africa

By Dr. Mfegue Crescence Virginie

 

Dr Mfegue Crescence VirginieLast year we featured Dr. Mfegue Crescence Virginie, an agronomist from Cameroon, in our #FoodHeroes campaign. Working as the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Program Manager for the World Cocoa Foundation in West Africa, she explained how this viral disease can be damaging for farmers, resulting in more than 15% of global cocoa losses. One year on we followed-up with her to find out the facts behind the recent story that chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years.

Can you please introduce yourself, the World Cocoa Foundation and your work there?

My name is MFEGUE Crescence Virginie, and I’m from Cameroon. I am an Agronomist and I hold a PhD in plant pathology, with special focus on plant-pathogen interactions. As a teenager, I was inspired by women scientists such as Marie-Curie and I wanted to make my contribution to the sciences. During my studies, encouraged by successes and learning from failures, I never stopped dreaming about becoming a scientist.

My commitment to science and plant pathology was reinforced in 2008 when I had the opportunity to take part in, a Borlaug Fellowship Program (supported by the United States Department of Agriculture and the World Cocoa Foundation) at North Carolina State University. There I met Dr. Jean Ristaino (then a professor in the University’s Department of Plant Pathology) who made a precious gift to me: a book she co-authored, entitled “Pioneering women in plant pathology”.

 

The World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) is a non-profit international membership organization that promotes sustainability in the cocoa sector. Our vision is a sustainable and thriving cocoa sector – where farmers prosper, cocoa-growing communities are empowered, human rights are respected, and the environment is conserved. WCF has more than 100 members that span six continents. They include companies that work with cocoa and chocolate in the following areas: agricultural inputs, financing, logistics, manufacturing, processing, production, retail, trading and transport. Our members represent more than 80% of the global chocolate and cocoa market.

 

I worked for a decade as a researcher on cocoa diseases at the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD) in Cameroon. Then in 2015 I was recruited by the WCF to run a program on Cocoa Swollen Shoot Disease Virus (CSSV) management and eradication, the largest threat to cocoa in West Africa. As the CSSV Program manager, I oversee the development of tools and techniques for scientists dealing with CSSV in West Africa. I also build partnerships with universities and national and international research institutions for more effective management of the CSSV disease through the selection of virus-tolerant planting materials and integrated pest management practices.

Why is West Africa home to 70% of the world’s cocoa production?

Cocoa successfully spread throughout Central and West Africa after being introduced to the West African island of Sao-Tome in the late 1800s. When cocoa production declined in South America, West Africa took the lead and became the largest cocoa producing region in the 20th century.

Many factors explain why West Africa has taken the lead in cocoa production. Growth preferences characterized by a hot and humid climate, and West Africa’s situation on the so-called cocoa belt around the Equator; a favorable governmental policy environment that promotes cocoa farming; investment into cocoa research; and availability of land and labor has helped to increase production in Africa. The scope of cocoa farming in West Africa is another factor: cocoa farms represent some six million hectares cultivated essentially by smallholder farmers. The region provides about 70% of the global cocoa production — Ivory Coast and Ghana are the largest producers, followed by Nigeria and Cameroon. Cocoa contributes up to 15% of GDP in these countries and millions of households rely on cocoa as their primary income.

What is your favorite thing about your job and working with cocoa?

Cocoa is one of the most complex and challenging agricultural sectors:

  1. cocoa is essentially produced by smallholder farmers in West Africa, often poor rural inhabitants who rely on cocoa for their income;
  2. 70% of global cocoa is produced in West Africa, but more than 80% of its consumers are in Europe, North America and Asia – Africa consumes less than 4% of cocoa products;
  3. cocoa production in West Africa faces numerous biotic and abiotic threats, in addition to the use of low yield varieties, poor agricultural practices and aging farms.

These things combined can result in a lack of interest in cocoa farming, putting the continued sustainable production of cocoa at risk.

Being a cocoa scientist and the CSSV Program Manager at WCF is about managing the forefront of a challenge that touches millions of lives from the farmer who grows it to the consumers who purchase it. I’m honored to be able to bring some innovative tools to help unlock the puzzle and, at the personal level, to ensure cocoa sustainability in West Africa while bringing brighter days for cocoa farmers. That’s what I am proud of.

What ‘threats’ do cocoa farmers face to their cocoa and how can plant science help to combat them?

The biggest threat to date in West Africa is pest and disease pressure, which are exacerbated by climate change and poverty. CSSV is the most damaging virus and there is a need to find long lasting solutions as the disease has been threatening the largest cocoa producers in Ivory Coast for more than a decade now.

WCF and the cocoa industry (through the CSSV Program) are supporting national research institutions in their breeding efforts and implementing integrated pest management strategies against CSSV. The screening of existing germplasms on research stations and in farmers’ plantations is a key element to identify promising genotypes. Industry has funded the development of a robust screening method to harmonize breeders’ work on CSSV, and has also invested in the validation of propagation techniques to more easily make available any genotype of interest, with desired traits.

Efforts have also gone to the development of protection methods against the disease, including diagnostic tools for early detection of the disease. Detection in asymptomatic infected plants is essential to an effective management of CSSV and sanitary surveillance. The industry has also brought support to identify efficient chemical control strategies in combination with good agricultural practices and shade management against the mealybugs (CSSV vector). More efforts are still needed on the breeding side to include other traits such as tolerance to heat and drought.

A recent article on business insider warned that cocoa plants are under threat of devastation; and that chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years. Is there any truth to this? And how can plant science help to stop this?

At WCF we are aware that, since 2013, a series of media articles have caused cocoa farmers and chocolate lovers alike to worry that chocolate could become “extinct” in the next few decades. These stories tend to selectively interpret research carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The good news is that we really do not need to start planning for a world without chocolate in the immediate future.

 

We know that climate change will impact where we can farm cocoa in the future — it is increasingly clear that some land will become less suitable for cocoa production, and some may become more suitable based on the prevailing models. The CIAT models are useful for understanding long-term trends, but are based on a continued ‘business as usual’ approach to growing cocoa. But, at WCF, our work on cocoa sustainability is anything but ‘business as usual’.

First, we have made commitments to help fight deforestation through our Cocoa and Forests Initiative, which addresses one of the root causes of climate change, namely humid microclimates that come from native forests. We are also working with partners to identify relevant agricultural practices  that can help farmers mitigate the impact of climate change on cocoa.

For example, cocoa, like most tropical crops, needs a high level of humidity to grow, so it could be affected by lengthy dry seasons, changes in precipitation, and pest and diseases that change as a result of changes in carbon dioxide and temperature. Ongoing studies at the University of Reading – and sister institutions – on water use efficiency and other physiological parameters will provide further insights on how to grow climate smart cocoa that is more resilient to the impacts of climate change. In the meantime, we plan to initiate trials in multiple locations to identify tolerant cocoa genotypes in exiting collections and germplasms around the world.

Can you share any examples of how you or the World Cocoa Foundation have helped improve livelihoods and farming practices using plant science?

With the validation of propagation techniques for the mass production of cocoa planting material, WCF and its CSSV Program are showcasing the positive benefits of plant science on farmers livelihoods. Making improved planting material available to farmers is one key to improve farming practices (less land, less labor, less input for the same or higher production) and the livelihoods of cocoa farming communities.

Making available diagnostic tools, as WCF is planning to do, is another critical way of supporting farmers to better manage existing farms and protect newly replanted farms. Many of the interventions by WCF and industry are having direct impact on farmers and their livelihoods. For instance, the Cocoa Livelihoods program, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to provide additional income and livelihoods strategy to farmers by supporting crop diversification and increased access to inputs. The USAID-funded Feed the Future Partnership for Climate Smart Cocoa, is facilitating the use and adoption of climate smart practices in cocoa while the African Cocoa Initiative, also jointly supported by USAID and industry, is facilitating access to improved quality planting materials, especially high yielding clonal planting material.

What’s your favorite type of chocolate?

Dark-milk chocolate with average 70% of cocoa butter is my favorite. I am passionate about the traditional flavor attribute of cocoa from West Africa but at the same time I have a slight taste preference for South American organic cocoa. This could probably be due to some of my readings on the Mayans and Aztec bitter and hot beverage “Xocoatll”, but the “Food of the Gods” still has a long journey, as Ed Seguine could say.

A shortened version of this interview also appeared in Plant Science Post, our monthly plant science newsletter.

You can find out more about West African cocoa farmers on our Cocoa In West Africa: Training through local partnerships page. You can also view an infographic reproduced from the World Cocoa Foundation, which shows the process of growing the cocoa trees to the chocolate making and all the steps in between.