Cocoa trees are being ravaged by a disease with no known cure

Ghana has cut its crop forecast by 11% this season because of the disease, people familiar with the matter said previously. About 16% of the country’s cocoa crops are infected, according to George Ameyaw, a senior scientist at the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana.
Cocoa red pods crop on cacao tree in agriculture farm plantation.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Cocoa red pods crop on cacao tree in agriculture farm plantation.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Published on Sep 06, 2019 11:23 AM IST
Copy Link
Bloomberg | ByOlivia Konotey-Ahulu

It’s a nightmare scenario for a cocoa farmer: walking through your plantation you spot some red-veined leaves. Maybe it’s a big lump on one of the branches.

You know immediately the tree is doomed, infected by the deadly swollen-shoot disease. Even worse, the plants around it are probably contaminated too, but you can’t be sure because the symptoms can take years to appear.

Swollen shoot is unique to West Africa, where about three-quarters of the world’s cocoa is grown. The disease was identified nearly a century ago, yet scientists say a cure is years away and early detection methods are only just being introduced. This year, a devastating outbreak in the world’s No. 2 cocoa grower is renewing urgency to find a solution.

Ghana has cut its crop forecast by 11% this season because of the disease, people familiar with the matter said previously. About 16% of the country’s cocoa crops are infected, according to George Ameyaw, a senior scientist at the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana.

“Looking at the Ghana situation, it’s bad, very, very bad,” he said. “The situation is already devastating, there’s a need for a radical regeneration of all those areas.”

Cocoa is a vital part of the economy in both Ghana and neighboring Ivory Coast, the biggest producer. The crop is grown in often remote and mostly poor areas by hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers. Swollen shoot reduces yields on infected trees and eventually kills them.

“Looking at the Ghana situation, it’s bad, very, very bad”

“I wish more people would understand the sort of magnitude of the lives impacted,” said Judith Brown, a virologist studying swollen shoot at the University of Arizona. “It’s affecting people who rely on it 100% for their income.”

If swollen shoot isn’t brought under control in the long term, more cocoa production will shift to South America and the Caribbean, said Brown, whose research includes identifying different species of the virus using genome sequencing. Optimistically, it could take 15 years to make real progress in managing the disease, she said.

For now, farmers manage the virus by chopping down, burning and replacing trees that show symptoms. Yet that often has little effect in containing the disease, which is spread by tiny white insects called mealybugs.

To help address the problem, scientists from Africa, Europe and the U.S. formed an international task force to share information, said Herve Bisseleua, a scientist and director at the World Cocoa Foundation’s Ghana office.

Governments and chocolate companies including Nestle SA and Mars Inc. are also working through several initiatives on ways to improve how cocoa is grown. In one example, the Ghanaian government has tested the use of “barrier crops” –  adding other plants such as citrus trees among cocoa crops so that the virus isn’t so easily transferred from leaf to leaf.

The Ghana Cocoa Board announced in July it will work with scientists at Israel’s Volcani center to find solutions to the disease.

Drones could also be a useful tool to help detect signs of the disease in plantations, according to the University of Arizona’s Brown.

The efforts to fight swollen shoot are having some effect, with early-detection tools now being introduced in Ivory Coast and Ghana, according to Bisseleua. Still, there’s a long way to go.

‘The gravity of the potential impacts should not be underestimated,’ he said. “No cocoa producing area has really experienced this before.”

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close Story
QUICKREADS

Less time to read?

Try Quickreads

  • Nato heads of states and governments pose for a photo during a summit in Madrid, Spain. (REUTERS)

    In a major shift, Nato identifies China as a systemic challenge

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) on Wednesday for the first time in its history recognised China's “stated ambitions and coercive policies” as a threat to the alliance's interests, security and values in a sign of the rapid shift in European geopolitical attitudes. The much-anticipated strategic concept, the first since 2010, was released during a historic Nato summit in Madrid that saw the participation of Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Korea.

  • Earlier on Sunday, the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) had mocked Putin over his shirtless, bare-chested horse-riding picture.

    'If Putin were a woman...': UK PM Boris Johnson on Ukraine war

    Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have started the war in Ukraine if he was a woman, said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday days after G7 members mocked the bare-chested pictures of the Russian leader. During his interview, the British PM also emphasized that everyone wants the Russia-Ukraine war to end. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked other leaders sitting around a table. "We all have to show that we're tougher than Putin."

  • FILE PHOTO: South Korea approves first homemade Covid-19 vaccine

    South Korea approves first homemade Covid-19 vaccine

    Health officials in South Korea on Wednesday approved the country's first domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine for people 18 years or older, adding another public health tool in the fight against a prolonged pandemic.

  • Sri Lanka fuel protests (Credit: @SriLankaTweet)

    Sri Lankans struggle for petrol due to fuel shortage, demonstrations to continue

    Sri Lankan doctors and other medical staff as well as teachers will take to the streets on Wednesday to demand that the government solve a severe fuel shortage at the heart of the South Asian country's worst economic crisis in decades. The government, left with only enough fuel to last about a week, on Tuesday restricted supplies to essential services, like trains, buses and the health sector, for two weeks.

  • Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud.

    TTP says no breakthrough in talks with Pak General

    The chief of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has said there won't be a dissolution of or surrender by the group even if the peace talks with the Pakistan government succeeds. In a video released by TTP, its chief, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, who has been leading the peace talks for the group, revealed that former Director-General of ISI and Core Commander Peshawar (Gen) Faiz Hameed has been representing the Pakistan government.

SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, June 30, 2022