#WeAreTogether: Cocoa quarantine keeps going as COVID-19 lockdown eases29 July 2020
A chocolate research centre in Reading will be maintaining strict quarantine conditions, even as the COVID-19 lockdown has begun to lift.
That’s because the University of Reading continues to operate the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre during the global coronavirus pandemic, as it has done for the past 35 years, with scientists and technicians operating under additional distancing rules – this time, to keep people safe, as well as the plants.
The centre handles 98% of all international trade in live cocoa plant material, preventing the spread of pests and diseases from one cocoa-growing region to another. Accidentally importing a South American disease to an African growing region, for example, could decimate a crop which is a mainstay of agricultural income in some countries.
The centre’s location in relatively cold Berkshire means plants are less at risk from UK-based diseases, and vice versa. The carefully climate-controlled greenhouses take in cocoa plant material from various gene banks globally, including the International Cocoa Genebank in Trinidad and the CATIE research station in Costa Rica, allowing them to grow safely for at least two years, before transporting them to growers or researchers elsewhere in the world.
The scientists are aiming to breed varieties with useful traits, such as high yield potential or disease resistance, which will be of benefit globally to breeders and growers – but without the risk of spreading cocoa plant infections.
Dr Andrew Daymond, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading said:
“As soon as a possible shutdown for Covid-19 looked likely, we began to ensure that our own quarantine-within-a-quarantine could continue. Our two technicians, Stella Poole and Heidi Canning, continue to maintain the facilities on a daily basis, maintaining social distancing and other safety measures.
“We made a point of identifying members of staff who could act as “reserves” in the event of ICQC staff having to self-isolate, and we also did essential stocking up with nutrients and other supplies in case deliveries were disrupted during the lockdown.”
The Centre operates by looking after particular varieties of cocoa from genebanks for a two year quarantine period. Cuttings are initially grafted on to seedlings and kept isolated initially in insect proof cages and monitored over the quarantine period, looking for viruses as well as pests.
The monitoring of viruses in the plants involves grafting on to a particular variety that is susceptible to viruses and monitoring these “indicator plants” for visual viral symptoms. The team also uses a PCR technique to detect viruses, similar to current testing techniques used for human virus diagnosis. The University has donated much of its PCR equipment of appropriate types to the NHS, as part of efforts to boost testing capacity across the UK.
Once a particular plant has completed quarantine it is moved to a separate post-quarantine greenhouse compartment, from where the University is able to export cuttings to research institutes worldwide, in response to requests.
Dr Daymond said: “Cocoa faces various diseases in different parts of the tropics. Many of these are confined to particular parts of the world, such as some viral diseases that are found in West Africa, where most of the global supply of cocoa comes from.
“Because of this, it is vital that any movement of cocoa plant varieties for research, breeding and cultivation is done via the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre in order to prevent disease pandemics.
“Over the past 35 years that the ICQC has been in Reading, there have been key threats to global cocoa growing through the fungal disease ‘Frosty Pod Rot’, which has spread further within South America into Mexico and also into Jamaica. There is also a particularly virulent form of phytophthora pod rot, phytophthora megakarya, which has been spreading within West Africa.
“It’s crucial for chocolate lovers and farmers alike that we continue to protect cocoa farming from further spread of these diseases, and help breeders to develop and access more disease-resistant varieties of cocoa.”