Chocolate Crisis? New Quarantine Centre to Safeguard the Future of Cocoa

The price of chocolate is set to soar as cocoa harvests struggle to meet increasing demand for this luxury product. With more than 3.6 million tonnes of cocoa beans consumed each year, an improved International Cocoa Quarantine Centre has recently opened in Reading to help safeguard the future of this important crop, which suffers 30% losses each year due to pests and disease.

The University of Reading has played a vital role in cocoa conservation since 1985, when the responsibility was transferred from Kew Gardens. Cocoa trees (Theobroma cacao) are susceptible to multiple plant diseases, including the deadly Cacao Swollen-Shoot Virus, as well as pests such as the devestating cocoa pod borer moth. One way to tackle the problem is to provide clean, genetically diverse plant material to cocoa-producing areas, and Reading University runs a facility at Shinfield which does just that.

cocoa pod

The International Cocoa Quarantine Centre at Shinfield has just opened a £1m new greenhouse, in which 400 varieties of cocoa are grown in tropical conditions. England provides a perfect location for the quarantine centre since tropical pests and diseases cannot survive in the cold climate, and the ‘clean’ plants are shipped to global growers after careful cultivation. Reading’s new energy-efficient facility has made the process faster and less expensive, contributing to an international effort to prevent predicted deficits in cocoa production.

There is more to cocoa than its well-loved taste, and research shows that chocoholics may profit from its wide-ranging biological properties. The high polyphenol, flavonoid and mineral content of cocoa has a potential role in multiple aspects of human pathology, including cardiovascular and neurocognitive health, obesity, diabetes and cancer. In just a few recent publications, cocoa has been shown to enhance memory performance , to be beneficial for skin health , and potentially reduce the risk of heart failure.

 

Theobromine; the main alkaloid component of cocoa

Theobromine; the main alkaloid component of cocoa

Preserving the future of cocoa or the “food of the gods” has never been more important, as demand for chocolate increases in Asia in particular; scientific techniques such as those pioneered by the University of Reading are crucial against shortages that are expected to cause a deficit of one million tonnes by 2020.

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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