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May 23, 2011

Deadly fungus threatens Latin American cocoa crop

by Jean Guerrero

Cocoa farmers from Brazil to Mexico are scrambling to protect their crops from a potentially devastating fungus that could crimp supplies of the chocolate ingredient.

Frosty pod rot, spread by spores carried by wind and human contact, is making its way through Latin America, bringing back memories of a blight that devastated Brazil's cocoa industry two decades ago.

The spread of the disease could add to worries about the supply of cocoa and send futures prices even higher. Futures touched $3,826 a metric ton on IntercontinentalExchange earlier this year when political turmoil in Ivory Coast, which provides one-third of the world's cocoa, threatened global supplies.

The cocoa bean is native to Latin America, but the nexus of cocoa production shifted to West Africa in the early 1900s as infestations such as frosty pod rot devastated Latin America's cocoa horticulture.

In 2005, the disease arrived in Mexico, the sixth-largest producer in the region and the farthest north the fungus can possibly spread. Chocolate companies such as Nestlé SA say the industry has finally touched bottom, but that the outlook can only improve as all of the countries affected in the region collaborate to find solutions.

A woman spreads cocoa beans to dry in Venezuela. The outbreak of frosty pod rot has raised concerns about the Latin American cocoa crop, stirring worries about supplies and pushing up futures prices.

Before the advent of frosty pod rot, "the trees were so filled up with cocoa fruit that I could stand behind one and you couldn't see me," says Felícito Domínguez-Sánchez, owner of 37 acres of cocoa trees in the southern state of Tabasco.

Now, only three of the round, green pods protrude from the trunk of one of his trees. Every day, Mr. Domínguez-Sánchez enters his plantation daily with his machete to hack off "sick" plants, which he identifies by the fine, white powder coating their surfaces, and buries them underneath damp leaves covering the ground.

International researchers and Latin American governments say the best defense against the fungus would be the use of cocoa varieties resistant to the disease. Governments and food companies such as Nestlé SA and Mars Inc. have invested heavily in researching cocoa's genetics and breeding, but the research has yet to produce disease-resistant varieties.

Some experts blame abnormal temperatures and rainfall for helping to spread frosty pod rot and warn that the trend is putting global supplies in jeopardy.

"We don't have a dike to hold back the ocean of disease pressure," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, global head of plant science and research for Mars.

The fungus hasn't yet arrived in Brazil, the largest producer in Latin America and the fifth-largest world-wide, but industry leaders there are working with research institutions just in case the disease leaks through the border with Peru, where it has been detected.

The international research center on tropical agriculture, Costa Rica-based Catie, has developed six varieties that are tolerant of the fungus and is sharing them with other countries. A tolerant variety is one that sees less damage to its production than the average plant; a resistant variety's production isn't affected by the fungus at all.

In Mexico, government officials have identified nine native cocoa species that show some tolerance. Some of these species produce the white seeds that can be made into "fine" cocoas, which are valued above conventional varieties. Fine cocoas originate mostly from Latin America.The fungus, however, has forced many producers out of the industry. Mexico, the 12th largest cocoa producer in the world, has seen its production fall by half since 2005, when the disease arrived from Guatemala.

Frosty pod rot isn't the only disease that has wreaked havoc on cocoa production in Latin America, but its arrival was what brought the region's industry to its knees. Two decades ago, a fungus called witches' broom appeared in Bahia, Brazil, and cut the state's production by 70% in 10 years. In the harvest that ended in April, Bahia produced 153,600 metric tons of cocoa, down from the record 397,400 tons seen in the 1986-1987 season before the witches' broom fungus appeared.

"The impact of witches' broom was very serious in Brazil, but if the frosty pod rot arrives, the effect would be catastrophic," says Wilberth Phillips, head of the research center Catie. Costa Rica's cocoa production dropped 72%, and exports virtually came to a halt within five years of the arrival of the disease in 1978, according to the center's statistics. In Honduras, production fell to 1,200 metric tons in 2005 from 4,500 metric tons in 1997. Thousands of acres throughout the region have been abandoned or switched to other crops.

Protecting cocoa crops from this disease is proving difficult. The disease is nearly impossible to contain in humid areas such as in Mexico's southeastern Tabasco state, producers say.

Some in the industry are worried that the frosty pod rot could make its way to West Africa, which supplies more than half of the world's cocoa.

With cocoa futures around $3,000, more than double the five-year average, producers are traveling to other countries to search for better varieties of the plants. But this could contribute to the spread of the disease if the producers travel with clothes or plants contaminated with spores.

"The procedures they have in a lot of African countries are not as sophisticated or developed for keeping that sort of [disease] out," says Michael Segal, information officer for the International Cocoa Organization, or ICCO.

In Mexico, the most recent place to suffer the arrival of the fungus, the Agriculture Ministry aims to increase cocoa yields from 357 pounds per acre to 1,784 pounds per acre with a program that subsidizes the purchase of plants that have been bred to be disease-tolerant. Last year, 1.5 million of these plants were produced with the help of the program, and this year Mexico aims to produce two million.

But many producers say they can't obtain the bank credits required for participation in the program. "We're told we don't have enough guarantees," said Mr. Domínguez-Sánchez, who added that his bank has told him that he doesn't have proper proof of ownership for his property, which is cooperatively owned. Many farmers in Mexico similarly involved in cooperatives face problems meeting bank requirements for loans.

Government officials say they are working to encourage banks to lend money to farmers so they can buy the disease-tolerant cocoa plants.

Wall Street Journal

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