Notícia

Financial Times (Reino Unido) online

Brazilian cocoa to make a come-back?

Publicado em 23 maio 2012

Por Samantha Pearson

It’s a study that has gone relatively unnoticed but one that could have huge consequences for Brazil’s cocoa industry and chocolate lovers everywhere.

Researchers at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in São Paulo state appear to have discovered exactly how the deadly fungus witches’ broom operates, paving the way for a possible cure.

The disease was responsible for destroying huge swathes of cocoa plantations in northern Brazil in the late 1980s and early 1990s, effectively wiping out the country’s chocolate industry. Attempts to find cocoa strains resistant to the wind-born fungus got nowhere.

The arrival of witches’ broom was a national tragedy similar in its effect, if not quite in scale, to the ructions in Brazil’s coffee industry from the 1930s. The collapse of the industry cost an estimated 200,000 jobs and is one of the biggest setbacks in the country’s recent history. (TV Globo made a hit telenovela centred on the disaster that ran for 213 episodes.)

As noted in a report on the discovery from Fapesp, a São Paulo research institution (translated by beyondbrics):

When it arrived in southern Bahia in 1989, probably coming from the Amazon region, witches’ broom caused Brazilian production of cocoa to fall from about 400,000 tonnes a year to a little more than 120,000. Brazil, hitherto one of the biggest cocoa exporters, began importing lower quality beans from countries such as Indonesia.

The disease is currently present in all cocoa producing countries in central and south America.

That “probably from the Amazon region” glosses over years of conspiracy theories about how exactly the fungus arrived in Brazil’s north-east. Had it been introduced by rival producers in West Africa? Was it the work of leftwing opposition militants, incensed by the wealth and political power of the region’s cocoa barons? Weekly magazine Veja – well known for its dislike of the left – even produced a confession from the saboteurs responsible.

Whatever the history, it seems there is new hope for the region’s producers. Researchers say they have discovered the exact mechanism that allows the fungus to attack its host plant, where it causes a dense mass of shoots that looks like a broom (hence the name), as well as the reason why it has been able to resist fungicides up until now.

The theory goes that now we know its weak spot, it will be easier to destroy it once and for all.

If this really is the beginning of a breakthrough in the fight against witches’ broom, the implications for the world cocoa market will be enormous. Before the disease struck, Brazil was the world’s second or third biggest exporter of cocoa. Much of the industry’s infrastructure is intact, supplying Brazil’s large and fast-growing local market. Bahia is still the centre of production. Ramping production up again would face few significant obstacles.

Read the paper ‘The hemibiotrophic cacao pathogen Moniliophthora perniciosa depends on a mitochondrial alternative oxidase for biotrophic development’ published in the New Phytologist journal here.

It’s a study that has gone relatively unnoticed but one that could have huge consequences for Brazil’s cocoa industry and chocolate lovers everywhere.

Researchers at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in São Paulo state appear to have discovered exactly how the deadly fungus witches’ broom operates, paving the way for a possible cure.

The disease was responsible for destroying huge swathes of cocoa plantations in northern Brazil in the late 1980s and early 1990s, effectively wiping out the country’s chocolate industry. Attempts to find cocoa strains resistant to the wind-born fungus got nowhere.

The arrival of witches’ broom was a national tragedy similar in its effect, if not quite in scale, to the ructions in Brazil’s coffee industry from the 1930s. The collapse of the industry cost an estimated 200,000 jobs and is one of the biggest setbacks in the country’s recent history. (TV Globo made a hit telenovela centred on the disaster that ran for 213 episodes.)

As noted in a report on the discovery from Fapesp, a São Paulo research institution (translated by beyondbrics):

When it arrived in southern Bahia in 1989, probably coming from the Amazon region, witches’ broom caused Brazilian production of cocoa to fall from about 400,000 tonnes a year to a little more than 120,000. Brazil, hitherto one of the biggest cocoa exporters, began importing lower quality beans from countries such as Indonesia.

The disease is currently present in all cocoa producing countries in central and south America.

That “probably from the Amazon region” glosses over years of conspiracy theories about how exactly the fungus arrived in Brazil’s north-east. Had it been introduced by rival producers in West Africa? Was it the work of leftwing opposition militants, incensed by the wealth and political power of the region’s cocoa barons? Weekly magazine Veja – well known for its dislike of the left – even produced a confession from the saboteurs responsible.

Whatever the history, it seems there is new hope for the region’s producers. Researchers say they have discovered the exact mechanism that allows the fungus to attack its host plant, where it causes a dense mass of shoots that looks like a broom (hence the name), as well as the reason why it has been able to resist fungicides up until now.

The theory goes that now we know its weak spot, it will be easier to destroy it once and for all.

If this really is the beginning of a breakthrough in the fight against witches’ broom, the implications for the world cocoa market will be enormous. Before the disease struck, Brazil was the world’s second or third biggest exporter of cocoa. Much of the industry’s infrastructure is intact, supplying Brazil’s large and fast-growing local market. Bahia is still the centre of production. Ramping production up again would face few significant obstacles.

Read the paper ‘The hemibiotrophic cacao pathogen Moniliophthora perniciosa depends on a mitochondrial alternative oxidase for biotrophic development’ published in the New Phytologist journal here.