Disease threat to cocoa bean choc horror

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Bittersweet help is at hand for Bridget Jones and all chocoholics. The world's chocolate supplies, say American government scientists, are under "serious threat".

Bittersweet help is at hand for Bridget Jones and all chocoholics. The world's chocolate supplies, say American government scientists, are under "serious threat".

Five devastating diseases, they report, are sweeping through the world's cacao crops, imperilling the staple diet of the neurotic thirty-something. Every year almost a million tons of cocoa beans, worth more than half a billion pounds, are lost to the plagues on three continents.

And the scientists, from the US Department of Agriculture (Usda) - who describe their mission as "to save chocolate for the enthusiastic consumers of the world" - confess that all attempts to stop the diseases have failed.

Chocolate - harvested from a tropical rainforest tree, whose Latin name, Theobroma cacao, describes it as the "food of the gods" - was originally brought across the Atlantic from Central America by Cortez and his conquistadores. It was the first stimulant drink introduced to Europe, pre-dating coffee and tea.

It took about a century to catch on, needing the addition of sugar, cinnamon - and even chilli peppers - to make its naturally bitter taste more palatable. Since then, it has never looked back. Until now.

Now, say the scientists from Usda's Alternate Crops and Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, "several important fungal diseases pose a serious threat to the supply".

One, called "witches' broom", has slashed Brazil's production of cocoa by three-quarters in just 10 years and is devastating crops in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama. Even worse is the "black pod" disease, which has cut harvests by up to 90 per cent in West and Central Africa, where two-thirds of the world's cocoa beans are grown, and has also reached Asia.

A third disease, "frosty pod rot", is rampaging through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and other parts of Latin America, eliminating some crops altogether. A fourth, "swollen shoot", has taken up residence in Africa,and the fifth, "vascular streak dieback", is confined to Asia.

The one saving grace, says Dr Bryan Bailey, one of the Usda team, is that by and large the diseases affect different areas. But the scientists fear that if they join up they could be far more devastating.

The Mayans and Aztecs, they say, grew cacao trees in isolated orchard groves, which minimised the spread of disease, but today's intensive cultivation has made the crop more vulnerable.

Using fungicides to beat the plagues is costly - and prohibitive because then the crop fetches only a low price - and may damage the rainforest. The best hope, says the team, is to combine a series of measures, including preserving the rainforests, breeding disease-resistant trees, and using natural controls.

In the long term, it adds, there could be "great potential" in biotechnology. But how Bridget Jones, and the rest of us, would react to GM chocolate is another matter.

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