KLEFE, Ghana — Farmers in the world’s largest cocoa-producing region don’t have time to  celebrate Valentine’s Day, they’re too busy battling diseases destroying their crops and  threatening their livelihoods.

One disease, called swollen shoot, has become a major problem across the West African region, which grows more than two-thirds of the world’s cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. The disease is transmitted by pesticide-resistant mealybugs and kills entire trees, forcing farmers to replant and wait.

“This is the first time that you can talk about swollen shoot all across the West African producers,” said Jean-Marc Anga, director of economics and statistics at the London-based International Cocoa Organization. “In the past it was predominantly Ghana and a bit in Nigeria, but now it has reached Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo.”

Ghana, seeking to lift millions of its people out of poverty, wants to get more revenue from cocoa exports by increasing its annual production by more than 30 percent to 1 million metric tons, so it is vital to control diseases like swollen shoot and black pod.

If, however, the diseases continue to spread it will result in lower cocoa production and therefore higher chocolate prices for sweet-toothed American and European consumers.

Walking through his family’s 2-acre farm in Klefe, 100 miles northeast of Accra, retiree Simon Kasu spots a “black pod” and notes that the property should be sprayed. Black pod is a fungus that dries and shrivels beans.

The good news, he said, is there’s no swollen shoot disease present. He’s seen it in the past, though, on other farms in the area, once called Togoland by German colonizers before the British took control at the end of World War I.

“It was profound,” he said of the damage from the disease. “They had to cut down a lot of trees. In some cases, they had to clear the whole farm.”

Forty-five million trees — about 10 percent of Ghana’s cocoa trees — are infected with swollen shoot, according to government estimates. Several eradication campaigns have been waged since it was discovered in Ghana in 1936.

Ghana’s cocoa board, a government body that buys beans from farmers — $1,400 per ton this year — and exports them, has its own Swollen Shoot Virus Control Unit that employs 750 technicians who inspect trees and advise farmers.

“Infected trees, we cut them, replace them with new seedlings,” said Francis Nsiah, executive director of the control unit. “Initially (farmers) oppose it. When we explain it to them, they allow us to treat.”

The government pays farmers about $200 per acre that it clears of infected trees and replants. One control measure involves establishing a buffer zone between the infected area and the new plantings. Also, research continues on breeding resistant seedlings. For now, the most important task is locating the infected trees and uprooting them.

The disease is easily spread through planting materials and transportation of seeds. Mealybugs are insects whose wax-like coating making them resistant to most pesticides.

Still, former Ghanaian President John Kufuor last year said it was a growing problem, and called for a multinational approach. Swollen shoot also is the top agenda item for an upcoming meeting of the Cocoa Producers Alliance.

The International Cocoa Organization, which represents producing and consuming countries, proposed to its West African members a regional eradication plan and is sending inspectors here later in February to assess the readiness of the governments, Anga said.

Swollen shoot disease reduces the region’s annual yield by at least 30 percent, Anga said.

“We are confident that they have gotten the message, in particular in view of the damage that swollen shoot is causing to the countries now,” he said. “We hope through the example and the lessons of swollen shoot, other diseases would be tackled at a regional level, instead of nationwide.”

Ghanaian officials remain optimistic. A spraying program to kill black pod is free for farmers, and roads to farming regions are being improved to facilitate bean delivery to ports.

They say they’re on track to increase production to 1 million metric tons by next year, with an eye toward gaining a foothold in the growing Chinese market. Ghana has built processing plants on the coast.

Also, British chocolate giant Cadbury Schweppes has launched a $40 million program to improve schools and water access in Ghana’s farming communities. It earlier funded a study showing that most farmers produced just 40 percent of their potential yields, in part because younger generations aren’t interested in farming. Ghana is Cadbury’s largest supplier.

Diseases kill cocoa elsewhere as well. Indonesia, the world’s third-largest producer after Ivory Coast and Ghana, may see a double-digit fall in production this crop year because of Vascular Streak Dieback.

Ghanaian officials are determined to control the disease in order to keep increasing the production of cocoa.

“How rapidly the disease can spread, this is the problem,” said the cocoa board's disease control director Nsiah. “But we are controlling it. We are working daily.” 

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