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Penn State experts promote cacao as an alternative to illicit crops in Colombia

A veteran farmer demonstrates the proper method for opening cacao pods at a boot camp workshop.
A veteran farmer demonstrates the proper method for opening cacao pods at a boot camp workshop. Photo provided

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State.

As codirectors of Penn State’s endowed cocoa research program and professors in the College of Agriculture, Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova work together all over the world. Still, the email last January from Colombia came as a surprise.

It was from the U.S. ambassador, asking them to attend a meeting in Bogota. Maximova and Guiltinan were wanted on a team assembling for a formidable task: to help poor Colombian farmers make the switch from growing coca, the stuff of cocaine, to growing cacao, the principal ingredient in chocolate.

Cacao for Peace, the initiative is called. It’s an outgrowth of the historic peace accord signed in November 2016 between the Colombian government and the leftist rebels known as the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, after 53 years of civil war.

Caught in the middle of that war, many Colombian farmers were forced, by circumstance and often by violence, to grow coca for the cocaine trade. The U.S. and Colombian governments have tried various means to choke out this illicit cultivation, first by forced eradication of coca plants, and more recently, by promoting legal alternatives.

In many ways, cacao — aka cocoa — seems an ideal solution. The Amazon basin is the birthplace of the stuff, and Colombia already produces some of the finest-flavored cocoa in the world. With global demand for chocolate increasing all the time, the price of cacao just keeps rising.

On the other hand, cacao is not easy to grow. To make it pay requires hard labor and more than a little know-how, yet around the world most of the crop is still grown by small farmers with scant access to technology, training or ready markets.

The ambitious goal of Cacao for Peace is to bridge that gap, or, as Maximova, the project principal investigator, puts it, “to make cacao farming sustainable — profitable for farmers, instead of just a marginal activity.” The larger aim is to make Colombia into a major producer, like neighboring Brazil and Ecuador. Doing so would in turn boost the world’s supply of high-quality cacao, and also benefit the U.S. chocolate industry.

To accomplish this, USDA and USAID have created an international partnership including the U.N.’s Office of Drugs and Crime, the Peace Corps, a variety of Colombian agencies and a consortium of U.S. land-grant universities with experience in tropical agriculture. Purdue economists are analyzing the cacao value-chain, the processing steps that add value to the bean on its way to becoming chocolate. University of Florida social scientists are looking at cultural factors and rural development. Penn State was tapped for its prowess in the genetics and cultivation of cacao.

Last November, Maximova and Guiltinan, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United Nations and Fedecacao, Colombia’s cacao extension service, organized a pilot program: a “Cacao Boot Camp” in the remote Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region.

The goal was to provide a crash course in cacao cultivation to a group of farmer-leaders and the Peace Corps volunteers assigned to work with them. After two weeks of intensive instruction, these leaders returned to their communities to teach their neighbors what they had learned.

Later this summer, Guiltinan and Maximova will return to the Sierra Nevada to join scientists of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and its Colombian counterpart, CORPOICA, on an expedition to survey the genetic diversity of the cacao in the region — especially the ancient criollo, the cacao variety first domesticated by the Olmecs nearly 4,000 years ago. Recent research points to northern Colombia as criollo’s birthplace.

“This is genomic science combined with geospatial mapping,” Guiltinan said. “By identifying and locating genetic diversity, we should be able to trace criollo back to its origins, and learn how it has evolved.” The team also plans to survey the region’s topography, soils and social conditions.

The effort will be worth it, Guiltinan said, and not just for understanding the story of cacao’s evolution. Mapping genetic diversity is important for conservation and plant breeding efforts, and could be critical to a new National Science Foundation study that he and Maximova are leading to identify the genes within cacao plants that are responsible for disease resistance.

David Pacchioli is director of research communications at Penn State.

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