Dreaded Virus Imperils Global Chocolate Supply

A devastating disease sweeping through cacao trees in West Africa poses a significant risk to the world’s chocolate supply. Transmitted by bugs that feed on plants in Ghana, the virus outbreak is attributed to the impacts of climate change, leading to harvest losses ranging from 15 to 50 percent.

Major chocolate companies such as Hershey and Cadbury have already raised prices due to supply shortages. Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which collectively supply about half of the world’s chocolate, are particularly affected.

University of Texas professor Benito Chen-Charpentier, an expert in mathematics and author, warns that the virus presents a genuine threat to global chocolate production. Traditional pesticides are ineffective against the mealybugs responsible for transmitting the disease, prompting farmers to resort to measures like cutting down infected trees and breeding resistant varieties. Despite these efforts, Ghana has lost millions of cacao trees in recent years.

Researchers from the University of Texas have proposed a solution involving vaccines for cacao trees to immunize them against the virus. However, the cost of vaccination is a significant challenge, especially for low-income farmers. Additionally, vaccinated trees tend to yield smaller harvests, exacerbating the impact of the virus.

To address these challenges, researchers have developed mathematical models to determine the optimal spacing between vaccinated and unvaccinated trees. These models aim to prevent the spread of the virus while keeping costs manageable for small-scale farmers. By creating a protective barrier of vaccinated cacao trees around unvaccinated ones, farmers can potentially safeguard their crops and improve their harvests.

While still in the experimental stage, these innovative models offer hope for protecting chocolate production and supporting the livelihoods of cocoa farmers worldwide.

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