FFAR Awards Grant To Mitigate Threat To Cocoa Industry

by | Jan 21, 2024

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FFAR’s ROAR program rapidly funds research and outreach in response to emerging or unanticipated threats to U.S. food supply or agricultural systems.

The Problem

A devastating pathogen, frosty pod rot, is compromising the cocoa industry in continental America. If not managed properly, the pathogen can cause yield losses of up to 80%, compromising farmer profits and jeopardizing an important U.S. import. While frosty pod rot has been present in Central and South America for decades, it recently reached the Caribbean, a region known for its high-quality organic cocoa.

“The U.S. cocoa supply is dependent on our neighbors in the Caribbean and Central and South America,” said Dr. Angela Records, FFAR’s chief scientific officer. “Frosty pod rot poses a significant threat to cocoa production and the security of access to cocoa products in the U.S. FFAR is funding research to mitigate this disease to protect farmers and ensure consumers can purchase their favorite chocolate products for Valentine’s Day for years to come.”

Cacao pod suffering from frosty pod rot. Credit: Shahin Ali

Cocoa frosty pod rot is caused by a fungus that causes internal damage early into the growth cycle. External symptoms typically appear 40 to 80 days after infection, contributing to unintentional spread of the disease. The disease is spread easily by water movement, wind and the movement of pods. With the arrival of the pathogen in Jamaica in 2016, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are especially vulnerable due to their geographic proximity. If the infection continues spreading in the Caribbean, about 223 thousand hectares supplying almost 100 thousand tons of cocoa beans to the U.S. and Europe will be at risk. The Dominican Republic alone produces about 250 thousand hectares of cocoa with the U.S. as its number one importer, making pathogen spread a major threat to the U.S. supply and thousands of chocolate industry jobs.

Mitigation Possibilities

To address this spreading pathogen, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $100,000 Rapid Outcomes from Agricultural Research (ROAR) program grant to the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) to identify disease control tactics. CATIE, Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique Pour le Dévelopement (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development), Departamento de Cacao de la República Dominicana (Dominican Republic Department of Cacao), VMR Consulting and in-kind donors provided matching funds for a total $248,167 investment.

To mitigate the effects of frosty pod rot, CATIE researchers, led by specialist in the agroforestry, coffee and cocoa unit Dr. Mariela Leandro, are developing control strategies for combatting this pathogen and creating a network to share strategies with farmers to increase adoption of these practices. 

“The importance of cocoa cultivation in the Caribbean region dates back several centuries and comes from various angles. This is why the devastation brought by the arrival of a pathogen such as frosty pod rot is not only economic, but also social, environmental and cultural,” said Dr. Leandro. “We are at a crucial moment to prevent the socio-economic impact of this outbreak and propose the implementation of applicable climate-smart measures that will allow the preservation of the profitable cocoa production in countries like the Dominican Republic and, at the same time, carry out adequate planning for the incursion of this crop in places like Puerto Rico and Hawaii. These regions have a growing interest in the extension of cultivation areas for this crop as a response to the growing market for chocolate with outstanding organoleptic traits and the environmental benefits of agroforestry cocoa cultivation.”

About the Foundation for Food & Agricultural Research

Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research logo.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment. 

Connect: @FoundationFAR

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