Last 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.
How did you become a plant scientist?
As a teenager, I was inspired by women scientists such as Marie-Curie and I wanted to contribute to the sciences. During my studies, encouraged by successes and learning from failures, I never stopped dreaming about becoming a scientist. Today, I am an agronomist and I hold a PhD in plant pathology, with a special focus on plant-pathogen interactions.
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”.
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 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.
Factors explaining the lead of West Africa in cocoa production include: 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. All of these helped to increase production in Africa.
What is your favorite thing about your job and working with cocoa?
Cocoa is one of the most complex and challenging agricultural sectors:
- cocoa is essentially produced by smallholder farmers in West Africa, often poor rural inhabitants who rely on cocoa for their income;
- 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;
- 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.
In 2015, I was recruited by the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) to run a Program on Cocoa Swollen Shoot Disease Virus (CSSV) management and eradication, the most important threat to cocoa in West Africa. My job is about managing the forefront of a challenge that touches millions of lives, from the producers who grow it to the consumers to 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.
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’. We are 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.
What’s your favorite type of chocolate?
Dark-milk chocolate with an average of 70% of cocoa butter is my favorite. I am passionate about the traditional flavor attributes 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 would say.
This is an extract from the full interview, which is available in the blog. Click here to read more about Virginie and cocoa, including more information on the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), the threats cocoa farmers face, and how the WCF is helping improve their livelihoods.
You can find out more about West African cocoa farmers on our Cocoa In West Africa: Training through local partnerships page.