Rutgers studying cold-resistant cocoa
NEW BRUNSWICK (March 15, 2018) — Many farmers in New Jersey and beyond may be surprised to learn that research into cold-resistant forms of cocoa has been going on at Rutgers for more than three decades.
The ongoing research into weather-resistant, higher yielding forms of cocoa plants happened somewhat serendipitously.
When Dr. Thomas Gianfagna started working at Rutgers some 37 years ago, his first research assignment was on controlling spring frost injury in peach trees.
Gianfagna and his team were pretty successful doing that with growth regulators and propagating plants from adult peach trees.
While presenting his research at a conference in California, he was approached about a totally different crop.
“A fellow came up after my talk and asked if I could do this same thing with cocoa trees. I said, ‘I’ve never seen a cocoa tree. Where would we get them?’
And he said he was from the Mars Co. in Hackettstown, and ‘I can get you all the cocoa trees you want.’”
Thus a new plant biology project was born at Rutgers.
“I got the initial batch of cocoa trees from Mars Co., and they have been a great supporter of my research to this day,” Gianfagna said, “so we’ve been studying flowering and fruiting with cocoa for many years now.”
Three decades ago, Gianfagna worked for several weeks each year at the Mars-owned cocoa research farm in Bahia, Brazil, the main cocoa, producing region of Brazil. Bahia is about 1,500 kilometers north of Sao Paolo, on the Atlantic coast.
“It’s a rain forest environment from the coast to about 50 kilometers inland,” he said. One year, early on in his many trips to Brazil, “they said, ‘Tom, you should take some pods of these plants because we think they’re more resistant to one of the big diseases. They gave me a permit to take pods out of Brazil to the U.S.,” he said, noting he never really looked at the permit for U.S. Customs agents.
“I got on my flight late at night and arrived at Kennedy Airport at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning with my cocoa pods. I opened up the permit and realized it had expired.” The Customs agent at Kennedy asked him where he got the pod.
“He asked me where I was and what I was doing and I explained I was in Brazil and a researcher at Rutgers, but he never looked at my permit,” Gianfagna recalled, laughing.
The oldest of the more than 60 cocoa plants growing in greenhouses here date back to the early 1990’s, Gianfagna said. Efforts have been going on since before that point to come up with hardier, more disease and weather-resistant strains of cocoa.
The cocoa trees in the Cook campus greenhouse flower from May through December. In their native rain forest-like environment in Brazil and other South American counties, cocoa trees are pollinated by a small insect called a midge, about the size of a mosquito.
“We can’t have midges here, so we use students to do the pollination,” he said, noting “every fruit you see in this greenhouse has been hand-pollinated; the flowers are only open for one day and they’re only receptive in the morning, so you have to catch them at just the right time. Between May and December I employ students to hand-pollinate them.”
Just beneath the bud there’s a swollen region, so they just rub the two ends together, he said, noting careful records are kept on the cross breeding of various plants.
“We’re looking at crosses that do well with each other so we can figure out how to increase the yield of cocoa by crossing the most prominent genotypes,” he explained.
Cocoa is native to Central and South America, but in the early 19th century it was brought to the West Coast of Africa. More recently, it has been brought to Indonesia and Vietnam.
“In general we’re at a point now where demand for cocoa exceeds supplies,” he said, “and ironically, where a lot of cocoa is produced in West Africa, many farmers there have never even tasted chocolate.”
“I have other projects here, but I’ve worked with cocoa now for 30 years,” Gianfagna said, noting there are very good economic reasons he does this work.
“At the New Jersey Ag Experiment Station, our clients are not only farmers, but also the food processing industry. So we have Mars in Hackettstown, we have other chocolate producers and confectioneries. We have Hershey just across the border and Blommer Chocolate near Allentown, Pennsylvania.”
The Port of Camden – Philadelphia is the major port of entry for cocoa beans into the U.S., Gianfagna explained.
“This is a big part of our economy and the main reason I’m working on this, because it’s tied in — not so much to the ag industry — but the food industry, here in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. So much cocoa processing goes on here and in Pennsylvania.”