Considering how often consumption of chocolate is central to many culture’s celebrations – from Easter to Christmas – it is perhaps not surprising that worldwide demand for chocolate is outstripping supply, with current cocoa crop dwindling due to increased pests and diseases among other key factors.
La Trobe Research Fellow Dr Philip Keane is leading a $5 million project to bolster Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) ailing cocoa .
It will provide critical help for an industry that has accounted for almost 20 per cent of PNG’s agricultural exports and directly affect the livelihood of 150,000 small-holding farming families.
PNG’s cocoa crisis
Dr Keane says cocoa production in PNG has declined by 80 per cent following the arrival of serious insect pests (the Cocoa Pod Borer) from Indonesia, as well as declining soil fertility, aging farmers, poor crop management and increased diseases, such as Phytophthora Pod Rot.
Eighty per cent of PNG’s population are farmers and, since the 1960s, the cocoa industry has been a main driver of rural development in the lowlands, so the crisis is affecting the livelihood of many.
Dr Keane says PNG scientists involved in the project have already developed outstanding new cocoa clones that are smaller, high yielding, and resistant to pests and diseases.
They have also devised more intensive ways of management of smaller trees to control pests and diseases, obtain high yields, and new post-harvest processing methods to improve cocoa quality.
‘This is a socio-economic rather than a purely technical project; we already know how to increase cocoa yield ten-fold. The main requirement now is to have these innovations adopted widely on farms.’
Dr Keane is working with villagers in four provinces (New Ireland, Madang, East Sepik and Chimbu) to train cocoa farmers who will then return to their home villages and train and provide sustained, day-to-day support for other farmers on a fee-for-service basis.
New farming systems
‘A critical aspect of the project is to help farmers obtain financial support through financial institutions and other companies to enable them to pay for advice, new cocoa clones and farm inputs,’ he says.
‘We are going to test and promote new cocoa farming systems,’ Dr Keane said. ‘These will integrate food crops, livestock, and high-value tree crops such as coconuts, fruit and local nut trees which can provide shade for cocoa trees and additional farm produce.
‘Growing cocoa on smaller trees in association with food crops will also help involve women more actively in cocoa farming, where they can apply the same sort of intensive management they have traditionally applied to food crops.
This project is in collaboration with other Australian experts with experience in agricultural development, cocoa extension, and agricultural marketing and finance in Papua New Guinea.
The aim is to increased production and profitability of smallholder cocoa to drive rural development, and ultimately help low socio-economic farmers in rural areas to thrive.
It’s part of La Trobe’s research into solving global issues of food security, water and the environment.
Find out more about the world-class research undertaken by our AgriBio department.