August 11, 2005

Research Grant Boosts Future of Chocolate Supply

LONDON -- Chocolate consumers will benefit from a research project in Britain aimed at improving cocoa production and tackling pests and diseases which wipe out up to one third of the world crop each year.

The Dutch government and a UK-based industry body have donated 1.4 million euros ($1.74 million) to the world's first ever study of cocoa epigenetics -- how the environment influences the plant's genes and how this changes over a tree's lifetime and under the effects of stresses such as disease and drought.

The University of Reading's School of Plant Sciences in the UK's south-east will use the money over five years to research the effects of changed growing conditions on genes for quality, yield and disease resistance to learn how to predict plants' adaptability to environmental change.

The research "will enable us to be more predictive about trees acting in certain places," Reading's Professor Mike Wilkinson said. "If we know which genes can adapt we can also say something about the physiological state of the plant, so that we can detect the symptoms of some diseases early on."

Most cocoa is grown in a narrow belt either side of the equator in West Africa, South America and Asia.

With plenty of scope for increased efficiency, particularly in West Africa, and consumption seen rising steadily thanks to new markets like Asia, the chocolate industry is keen to encourage long-term growth in production.

"Cocoa is a developing world crop with all sorts of issues associated with it," said Bob Eagle, Secretary of Cocoa Research UK.

"Disease for example -- what happens if it takes over in one region and how do you stop it spreading? We need to understand cocoa's genetic diversity in order to continue to provide a cocoa economy," he added.

Cocoa Research UK is helping to administer the funds donated by the Netherlands, which is the world's largest cocoa processor.

Reading University has been a center for cocoa research for 15 years but has only been studying the plant's epigenetics for the past couple of years.

"This grant allows us to do so much more than we were able to do before. It's quite liberating in many ways," Wilkinson said.

"Our ultimate aim is to ensure continuity of supply. A lot of cocoa is grown by poor smallholders and the more we can do to identify how they should handle the crop, the better."

($1=.8059 Euro)