Israeli Scientist's Superhero Cocoa Plant Revolutionizes Chocolate Production

Securing the future of cocoa farming even under challenging circumstances.

Israeli Scientist's Superhero Cocoa Plant Revolutionizes Chocolate Production | Securing the future of cocoa farming even under challenging circumstances.

In a bid to revolutionize the cocoa industry and mitigate the impacts of extreme climate events, Israeli scientist Ellen Graber is spearheading an innovative project to develop a "superhero" cocoa plant. This groundbreaking endeavor aims to assist cocoa growers worldwide in combating crop damage and soaring prices caused by climate-related challenges.

Passion for chocolate
Graber, a distinguished soil chemistry expert, was drawn to cocoa cultivation by her passion for chocolate. Speaking to The Times of Israel, she expressed confidence in the ability of Israeli plant scientists to address a range of agricultural issues, including pests, pathogens, water scarcity, soil health, and climate variations. Graber is working as part of the Cocoa Cure Center, composed of experienced and dedicated researchers from the Volcani Institute, Agricultural Research Organization (ARO), Israel. Despite their limited experience with cocoa, these scientists have successfully cultivated various tropical crops such as mangos, bananas, and avocados, showcasing their expertise in tropical agriculture.

“Climate change is a real enemy of the cocoa-growing industry,” Graber said. “It’s either too wet, too dry or too hot. The soils have very low fertility. Farmers are very poor. They don’t have the ability to buy inputs. It’s all at the edge of viability and has been for some time,” Graber told The Times of Israel. 

“I just knew I loved chocolate,” she explained, “so I began learning what was going on and what the cultivation problems were. The more I understood, the more I thought maybe we could do something at [agricultural research center] Volcani, because these are not insurmountable problems. We know how to grow stuff when the climate isn’t ideal.”

The urgency of Graber's mission is underscored by the growing threats posed by extreme weather events, which have become increasingly frequent and severe due to climate change. Droughts, floods, heatwaves, and other climatic disruptions have disrupted cocoa production globally, leading to reduced yields and quality. Consequently, chocolate prices have surged to unprecedented levels, straining both growers and consumers.

Graber's initiative holds immense promise for the cocoa industry's resilience and sustainability. By developing a "superhero" cocoa plant capable of withstanding climate shocks and producing high-quality beans, she aims to stabilize cocoa supply chains and alleviate the financial burdens faced by growers. This endeavor aligns with the broader goals of ensuring food security, supporting rural livelihoods, and fostering environmental stewardship.

Superhero plants survive during wartime
Graber delivered 140 of the 300 plants she had planned, which were around five months old, to a research and development station a few kilometers from the southern Israeli border with Gaza on October 4 of last year. After three days, on October 7, hundreds of militants from Hamas stormed border towns, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253. The R&D center's location was added to a restricted military zone. There was not enough time for the research center staff to move the seedlings out of their three-liter pots.

“There was no electricity, and the plants received no fertilizer or water until mid-January. It rained a bit, but not much and not regularly. They were in a net house left to their own devices. We expected to find 140 dead cocoa plants,” Graber said. 

But when scientists returned, they found that 20 of the plants had survived and were growing new leaf flushes. “Most of the survivors came from one of five or six varieties that I had sent. This indicates that this variety has a huge ability to survive under severe drought conditions. Still unprotected, they made it. I brought them back to Volcani, transplanted them, and they’re surviving. I call them superheroes,” Graber explained. 

Advancing cocoa cultivation
Collaboration plays a pivotal role in Graber's research, as evidenced by her partnership with the Cocoa Cure Center. This collaborative effort leverages expertise from various disciplines, combining soil science, genetics, agronomy, and climate resilience to advance cocoa cultivation practices. The Cocoa Cure Center's team comprises dedicated professionals committed to driving innovation and positive change in the cocoa sector.

“I see this as a kernel, not only of a new crop for Israel, but actually for helping to populate the cocoa-growing regions of the world with plants that can withstand the challenges we are facing,” Graber said.

Graber clarified that she had crossed-bred and observed the behavior of several plants instead of modifying genetic material. The next steps involved assessing the plant's resilience to fungal infections, examining the superhero plants' genetic profiles, and figuring out which animals were pollinating them—a challenge that hasn't been solved in Africa either.

Graber's vision extends beyond scientific advancements; it embodies a commitment to enhancing global cocoa sustainability and promoting social and economic resilience among cocoa-producing communities. Through strategic partnerships, research breakthroughs, and technology adoption, her "superhero" cocoa plant holds the potential to transform the chocolate industry, ensuring a brighter and more resilient future for cocoa growers and chocolate enthusiasts worldwide.

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