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Cocoa Plantation Farming Is Scientifically Illogical 

Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast have been chosen to benefit from a five-year US$13, 5 million venture to boost their respective cocoa sectors.  The scheme, dubbed the African Cocoa Initiative aims at enabling farmers shift from exclusive cocoa cultivation and embrace crop diversification as a means of enhancing food security as well as boosting income.  The project is due launch in the beneficiary countries in the weeks ahead. Divine Ntaryike Jr sought to know more about the initiative from the project spearhead, the World Cocoa Foundation, WCF. In the following email-conducted interview, Marisa Yoneyama, Communications Manager at the Washington-based WCF, says exclusive cocoa farming is fast becoming scientifically irrational.

How does the program intend to improve the genetic quality and productivity of cocoa varieties under cultivation?  Can you briefly explain the process that will boost the genetic quality of the plant?

The World Cocoa Foundation African Cocoa Initiative (WCF/ACI) will support a five year program of regional research led by the African Cocoa Breeders Working Group (ACBWG).  This effort will continue to be coordinated by the IITA [international Institute of Tropical Agriculture] in Ibadan as they support and provide technical expertise to the national institutions.  Specifically, these efforts will develop, pilot and test new production approaches for producing and distributing “certified/improved” planting materials, and demonstrate superior performance of “certified” planting materials under good agricultural practices in collaboration with farmers and communities.

To evaluate and test the effectiveness of selected approaches, baseline information will be established during the first year on the quality of existing tree stocks of the targeted pilot sites and farmer knowledge about the use of mineral fertilizer. The ACBWG in collaboration with the cocoa genomics efforts of USDA-ARS, Mars, Pennsylvania State University and CIRAD will select the most productive clones and hybrid crosses for multiplication and distribution in the targeted pilot sites.

The program will test and develop various multiplication/distribution systems for certified planting materials according to respective seed/clonal production policy in each producer countries. DNA genotyping with SNP markers will be used to assure the genetic purity of the certified/improved planting materials, which will then be multiplied and distributed through these systems in the targeted pilot sites.

The timeline of activities requires close attention to the start-up. Given the biological lags associated with perennial crop production and the seasonality of cocoa planting from March to May, getting the multiplication systems and demonstration plots planted by May of year 1 will be critical.  Concurrent with the development of multiplication and distribution systems for improved planting materials, the program will develop demonstration plots of improved planting materials so that farmers may personally/visually evaluate the superior performance of these materials as compared to their local materials.

By year five the demonstration sites and multiplication systems will enter the second year of production, and allow for a preliminary assessment of the agronomic performance of “certified” planting materials relative to local or farmers’ own materials.  New approaches that the project expects to evaluate include clonal propagation methods (top grafting of rootstock, side grafting of old trees, chupon grafting of coppiced trees, and production of clonal gardens and clonal seedlings  using somatic embryogenesis), and decentralized mini-seed and clonal gardens operated by commercial nurseries and cooperatives.

The program may also consider innovations in current seed garden production units to improve their functionality and impact. The seed brokerage system developed by STCP in Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire is an example of such an impact. Backstopping and training on SNP and other molecular approaches for marker assisted selection will be provided by IITA.  IITA will also help in setting up a valid quasi-experimental design for measuring the impact.

The project also seeks to curb environmental hazards resulting from cocoa farming. How much has current farming methods spoiled the environment?

The debate on how cocoa both contributes to and prevents environmental problems has been underway for some time.  On the one hand, the clearing of forest land to plant cocoa and the use of agro-chemicals and fertilizers for cocoa production have been seen as detrimental; the integration of trees and other crops in modern cocoa and improved agriculture and soil conservation practices has been seen as positive. 

Modern cocoa cultivation depends now on a more educated farmer that has adopted good agriculture practices.  These include the safe handling and proper application of chemicals and fertilizers.  These also include protection of the cocoa crop by planting shade trees and other crops like plantains and fruit trees.  When well established and maintained, cocoa can be a very positive contribution to a healthy environment.

The initiative also mentions increasing biodiversity and crop diversification. Isn’t this a way of ensuring that farmers don’t entirely concentrate on cocoa, and so by growing say plantains and coco-yams alongside, they have a ready source of food? In other words, isn’t this a tacit way of them subsidizing cocoa? Why not enable them maximize only cocoa production and bargain for higher prices?

This relates in part to the question above.  All of the cocoa in Africa is produced by small family farms.  In its origins a century ago, cocoa was produced in a mix of plantations and small holdings.   Today the plantations no longer exist.  This is due in part for the need to farmers to produce other crops, both for family need and for the market at different times in the agricultural calendar.   This spreads their earnings from selling produce over the whole year and helps with their food security in the family. 

As emphasized above, modern cocoa production depends on an integrated system with other timber and fruit trees and food crops being incorporated into a cocoa landscape.  This maximizes the use of the land and the incomes for farmers.  But it also reduces the risk on producing only one crop or the risk to the environment.

Higher cocoa prices are now linked to the quality of the post-harvest handling of cocoa. Farmers can receive a premium price when they insure that the cocoa beans are properly cleaned, fermented and dried. Teaching the steps to good quality handling is now an important aspect of assisting farmers in attaining better prices.   There are no longer good scientific reasons to promote plantation farming of cocoa.

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