Science to save the world's chocolate supply

Wednesday, 04 September, 2019

Science to save the world's chocolate supply

Confectionery company Mars Wrigley and the University of Queensland are collaborating on UQ-developed technology to fight the cacao swollen shoot virus or CSSV. Mars Wrigley has donated over $100,000 to the University of Queensland’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences for an initial six months of research into technology that could help subsistence farmers in Africa and save the world’s chocolate supplies.

Professor Jimmy Botella and Dr Michael Mason said the virus has devastated many cocoa plantations in western Africa, affecting cocoa yields.

“Currently, around 75% of the world’s 4.1 billion kilograms of cocoa beans are grown in western Africa, where this disease is becoming ever more rampant. In Cote d’Ivoire alone, there are 600,000 farmers producing cocoa and six million people working in the industry, so it’s critical we take control of this disease, and soon,” Professor Botella said.

Cacao swollen shoot virus infects cacao trees, affects their leaves and roots, and decreases cacao yields by a quarter within the first year of infection. The virus then kills the tree within a few years.

To combat the virus, a UQ team has recently flown into Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire with an improved version of the UQ-developed ‘dipstick’ technology, rapidly diagnosing pathogens. The technology can diagnose plant diseases like CSSV in the field, a process which previously required a lab and trained technicians.

While the university has been developing the technology for eight years, it still needs to be adapted for each specific disease. Researchers at the University of Queensland have now developed a separate diagnostic device using microelectronics that offers a quick and simple diagnosis. The previously expensive and complicated sampling process now costs less than one cent per test, and completes the testing process in 30 seconds, as opposed to the usual two to three hours.

The UQ-invented diagnostic device, not much bigger than a coffee mug, which can be powered by car charger and produces a result in an hour. Image credit: University of Queensland.

“Crucially, it requires barely any training — perfect for cocoa farmers in poor, remote countries. In fact, we’ve now tested it with farmers and locals in far-flung locations like Laos, Cambodia and the jungles of Papua New Guinea,” Professor Botella said.

Testing can be conducted in the back of a truck, as it was here in remote Papua New Guinea. Image credit: University of Queensland.

The partnership between Mars Wrigley and the University of Queensland will fund the technology needed to help small-scale cocoa farmers in Africa. While the technology won’t cure the disease, it will aid with diagnostics and getting it under control.

CSSV could have a devastating impact on some of the world’s poorest subsistence farmers, as it has the potential to lead to a regional extinction of cocoa plants. Through their collaboration, Mars Wrigley and University of Queensland will be saving cocoa crops and preventing a sizeable decrease in the world’s chocolate supply.

Top image: Healthy cocoa beans near Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire in Africa, which are susceptible to CSSV. Image credit: University of Queensland.

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