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Disease looms over T&T’s cocoa dreams

Sunday, April 20, 2014
Bob Ramnanan, Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International regional representative.

An agricultural disease described by experts as one of the world’s worst cocoa problems is now feared to be at the door of a promising turnaround for a crop once recognised as the country’s most prized agricultural asset. “If it gets here, it will be the end of cocoa as we know it,” Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI) regional representative Bob Ramnanan told Sunday Guardian.



At the centre of expert attention throughout the Americas is a condition known as Frosty Pod Rot, caused by a fungus that has been behind a trail of cocoa plantation failures from Central America right down the north-western shoulder of the South American continent. Its presence in north-western regions of neighbouring Venezuela is now of particular concern to local agriculturalists who fear it may soon arrive.


Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj acknowledged that the disease “is of concern,” but gave the assurance that “we would be able to respond in a timely and adequate manner.” The experts prescribe an urgent approach. A comprehensive public awareness campaign has been launched and the dedicated resources of Customs, Immigration, Police and any agricultural extension facilities recognised as being important.


Disease serious threat to industry
Ministry-based agricultural scientist Deanna Ramroop describes the disease as a “serious threat to the cocoa industry.” “The disease,” she told a recent workshop on invasive alien plant and animal species, “can reduce crop yields by 70  to 80 per cent. 



“Given the increase in movement of persons and materials, both intentionally and unintentionally, as well the extensive damage this disease causes, it is important that measures be put in place to both prevent the entry of the disease, as well as to successfully manage it should it be detected.” The sometimes unhindered flow of people, plants and animals between Venezuela and south-western parts of Trinidad is of particular concern.



Rot easily spread, highly adaptable
Because the fungus is spread via hardy microscopic spores it attaches easily to everything from clothes to the leaves of plants, the fur of smuggled animals and to packaging material. “The scary thing about it is that we have informal trade and people who move back and forth,” Ramnanan told Sunday Guardian. He cited the fact that the Black Sigatoga leaf-spot fungus that affects banana trees “came in from Venezuela and was first seen in the Cedros area...and it is a similar kind of disease.”


The International Cocoa Organisation (ICO) says in its literature on the disease that “the large amount of spores produced and the genetic variability endows the fungus with considerable adaptability.”



Recent initiatives to reposition T&T cocoa under threat
Any chink in the protective armor currently being designed by the Food Production Ministry can spell disaster at a time when efforts are being made to reposition a crop in marked decline. Maharaj said his ministry had successfully courted international chocolatiers prepared to pay up to 50 per cent more than the international market price for the country’s prime “trinitario” beans.


Under special agreements with players in the global chocolate industry, farmers can get up to $30 per kilogramme of cocoa instead of the usual $20 per kilogramme of beans. An agreement with Artisan du Chocolat of London is due to be signed in T&T next month. “Our approach has been different from the past,” Maharaj told Sunday Guardian. “It is now market-driven and focused on the demand side.”


He said encouraging discussions have been held with German and California (US) chocolatiers as likely high-end purchasers of T&T cocoa, while “other European operations” may eventually join in the act. “The thing is that while these countries are big on chocolates, they cannot grow a cocoa tree,” Maharaj said. The experts fear the arrival of Frosty Pod Rot can significantly reverse the gains of these recent initiatives.


According to Ramnanan, “it will make cocoa production very difficult and render it unprofitable.” He, however, said “all the systems are in place” and people have been trained to detect the disease.



Massive public awareness effort needed to keep rot out
“But it will take a massive public awareness effort, especially among people involved in informal trade between Venezuela and Trinidad, to ensure that we keep this out.” With an industry once capable of producing more than 35,000 tonnes of cocoa a year, there are now around 1,800 farmers cultivating 8,000 hectares of cocoa producing less than 1,500 tonnes of cocoa annually. More than 95 per cent is exported to Europe, Japan and the United States.


There have been recent success stories with plantations in Roxborough, Tobago and the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers’ Co-operative in Central Trinidad. T&T is also the location of one of the world’s largest and most valuable cocoa gene banks.


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