When a coffee pod is healthy, it resembles an oblong melon — golden or reddish in colour with multicoloured speckles. A coffee pod affected by the swollen shoot virus is smaller, rounder, and not suitable for sale.
The disease, also known as “cocoa shoot oedema,” is spread from plant to plant by mealybugs. It attacks the leaves and pods of the cocoa plant and eventually causes the stems and roots to swell.
According to the World Cocoa Foundation, cocoa shoot oedema is a serious threat to cocoa production in West Africa. In severe cases, the disease can kill a cocoa plant in two or three years.
Ivorian cocoa growers have been fighting the swollen shoot virus for five years. It has already destroyed more than 8,000 hectares of cocoa plantations. Now farmers will finally receive some assistance in coping with the disease.
The National Agricultural Research Center has launched a campaign aimed at 700,000 cocoa farmers in thirteen regions of the Ivory Coast. The campaign will communicate the effects of the disease, how farmers can detect it, and how they can develop disease-resistant hybrids.
No foolproof method has been found for managing the swollen shoot virus. However, the World Cocoa Foundation recommends several methods for combating its spread. For example, it advises farmers to cut down any infected cocoa plants and tell neighbouring farmers to be on alert. If more than 100 plants in a plot become infected, all plants within 15 metres should be cut down.
Another alternative is to use hybrid cocoa plants that are resistant to the swollen shoot virus. Researchers in Ghana recently discovered such a hybrid. In addition to resisting the swollen shoot virus, the hybrid plant matures more quickly, without compromising the quality of the cocoa pod.
This alternative is more expensive, though, and may not be affordable for the small-scale farmers who produce more than 80 per cent of the world’s cocoa.
Tiemoko Yo is the Director of the National Agricultural Research Center. He notes that the Ivory Coast produces more cocoa than any other country in the world. Therefore, a problem for cocoa in Ivory Coast is a problem for the global chocolate industry.