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Safeguarding Ghana’s Chocolate Supply: Scientists Turn to Digital Solutions

by Victor Adeyemi

A fast-spreading virus is threatening the cacao tree, the plant that gives us chocolate. Scientists warn this virulent pathogen could put the world’s chocolate supply at risk. 

However, the good news is that researchers have developed an innovative mathematical strategy to try and stop the virus from spreading further.

Approximately half of the world’s chocolate originates from cacao trees cultivated in the West African nations of Ivory Coast and Ghana. 

Unfortunately, this damaging virus is attacking cacao trees in Ghana, resulting in harvest losses from 15% all the way up to 50%.   

The cacao swollen shoot virus disease is transmitted by tiny insects called mealybugs that feed on the trees’ leaves, buds, and flowers. It is one of the biggest threats to chocolate’s main ingredient.

Furthermore, Benito Chen-Charpentier, a maths professor at The University of Texas at Arlington and author of the journal article “Cacao sustainability: The case of cacao swollen-shoot virus co-infection,” expressed grave concern.

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He said, “This virus is a real threat to the global supply of chocolate. Pesticides don’t work well against mealybugs, so farmers have tried to stop the spread by removing infected trees and growing resistant varieties. But even with these efforts, Ghana has lost more than 254 million cacao trees in recent years.”

A Digital Solution: Preventing Transmission with Data 

Cocoa supply chain

To address this issue, Chen-Charpentier and colleagues from several universities and research institutes have devised a new approach: using mathematical data to determine the optimal spacing for planting vaccinated trees, preventing mealybugs from transmitting the virus from tree to tree.

“Mealybugs can move from canopy to canopy, be carried by ants, or blown by the wind,” Chen-Charpentier said. “Our goal was to create a model to guide cacao growers in planting vaccinated trees at a safe distance from unvaccinated ones, stopping the virus spread while keeping costs manageable for small farmers.”

Through rigorous testing of mathematical patterns, the team created two models that allow farmers to establish a protective layer of vaccinated cacao trees around unvaccinated ones.
While still experimental, Chen-Charpentier noted, “These models are promising because they would empower farmers to safeguard their crops and improve harvests, which bodes well for their livelihoods and our global love for chocolate.”

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