Cocoa Development & Its Environmental Dilemma

Dixxon Chok

Idealistically, as industries evolve toward a more efficient solution, they should also adopt a more environmentally conscience stand. Those who can afford the luxury from the desperate need for survival would enjoy the privilege to contemplate on ideals. We hope that as we evolve towards a more understanding society, there will be more idealist and doers changing the damage past into a sustainable future.

If we looked for answers by merely questioning the motive of the inquisitor, we will not learn from the ideals that lie deep within the core of the subject. The Cocoa industry faces the same problem as does many industries that sell its raw products to the more affluent western countries. While these countries voice out stern disapproval "that the goals do not justify the means", a hypocritical stance is apparent. There are no "environmentally friendly" wrappers for the chocolate they sell. There are no signs of "recycle" on the packets of candies sold to the mass. Can the "poor" South East Asian cocoa farmer, struggling to survive, lessen the burden on the environment? What have they learnt from the charred past that might give hope to a sustainable future?

The Malaysian cocoa industry, so intertwined to the Indonesian, has collapsed. Although they have so much in common, there is one underlying aspect apparent. While both share the same climatic conditions, the same husbandry practices, and are farmed by ethnically the same people, there are some fundamental differences. The Malaysian small holders deal with a larger acreage than do small holders in Indonesia. While the Malaysian generally employs, the Indonesian directly toils his own fields with his family. Although smaller in acreage, the Indonesian takes better care of his farm. The Malaysian small holder adopted his "cocoa culture" from industry giants, while the Indonesian from the Malaysian small holder. Malaysian and Indonesian are both emulators, they are both followers. This mentality is prevalent even within the cocoa industry. The leaders in the Malaysian cocoa industry have unfortunately converted to Oil Palm, leaving the small holders in this country leaderless. The Indonesians have yet to evolve to this stage.

The mentality is identical to a manufacturer; high profit, and low cost. The Indonesian can afford to be less crude. The Malaysian small holder's "follow the leader psychology" has taken its logical step. As large companies converted to Oil Palm, so did the smaller ones take heed. From a country producing 240,000 tonnes of cocoa annually, it now produces a mere 40,000 tonnes. Oil Palm became the crop of choice due to its ecological resilience and it's cost effective management. The existing small holders in Malaysia currently total a handful of what it once was. Now faced with volatile prices due to the exchange rate, pestilence, and labor shortage, the last thing they want to do in this desperate attempt at survival is to deal with environmental sustainability.

There was a time when large-scale cocoa industry leaders of the past, led the way to solving the pestilence problem. The cloning of the VSD (Oncobacilium theobromae) tolerant breed, the PBC123 and PBC 149 by Harrisons & Crossfield in the early 70's would not have been possible if the large industries were not in need for a solution. The small holders just "rode on the bandwagon", they bought the clones needed for side-grafting, saving themselves insurmountable costs. The Giants led the path in management techniques, pioneered zero shading, and basically created the "cocoa culture" in Malaysia.

Before the "cocoa culture" evolved to its present state, the pest problems faced then were not very serious. Both Vascular Streak Dieback or VSD and Conopomorpha Crammerella or CPB was already present, but was not a threat to the industry. Things began to change as more stress was placed on the plants to produce higher yields. A planting frenzy started, and the cocoa plant was pushed beyond its recommended ecological parameters. The culture involved zero shading, accompanied by high inputs.

Zero shading was first introduced in large scale as a desperate attempt to increase yields. But most of work done in the past was over very small area...up to 10 acres. Few thought that it was possible to practice zero shade over a large area. At least not until the 80s, when a Sabahan entrepreneur, Hong Ngit Ming,(Chan Yan Hiong, ?) decided to remove all shade protection from all his cocoa farms. His initial success was a mixed bag. In areas where conditions were superior, he obtained stunning results, while in marginal areas, it was a disaster. Planters soon found out that in order for zero shade to work the cocoa canopy had to remain healthy and intact. The cocoa tree is notoriously susceptible to die-back, especially when weakened by the exposure to direct sunlight. In every case, the primary reason for the die-back was a pathogen. In Sabah the principal pathogen is the VSD (Oncobacilium theobromae).

Vascular Streak Dieback or VSD was always present in the standing cocoa. It never quite reached epidemic proportions until farmers decided to grow cocoa outside the parameters recommended for cocoa. At the height of its infestation during the late 70s, VSD was more feared than any of the other scourges including the formidable CPB. When VSD infects a plant, it would weaken the plant to a level that not only reduces the potential yield but slowly kill the entire tree in the long run. There is no known chemical to control it. The pruning of diseased parts as much as 18 inches pass the last sign of healthy tissues to arrest the downward penetration of the fungus to the main trunk had mixed results.

VSD tolerant clones were already in existence, but no one thought it was necessary to take VSD that seriously. The most successful method of control was to side graft on diseased old trees with a clone tolerant to VSD. Taking a shoot with as many as three live buds and side-graft on the trunk some three to four feet off the ground. The down side of this technique was the huge amount of graft material required. The up side was that a farm could be rehabilitated in a very short time, within 24 months the budded shoot will bear crop.

With the discovery of side-grafting and zero shade the cocoa industry was given a new least in life. Side-grafting has one negative down-side. The lack of variety in the clones allow a possibility that a new and more difficult scourge would emerge infecting the entire plantation without resistance. The up side of clonal cocoa is the uniformity of the beans. And if the right selection is made could influence cocoa butter fat content, which could attract a handsome premium in the market. Today every top class cocoa farmer in Sabah will side-graft his cocoa and practice zero shade with great success. Farms producing 2 tons of dry cocoa beans per hectare is more likely to be a rule than an exception.

In 1980, a new breed of pestilence evolved, the Conopomorpha Crammerella, commonly known as CPB, after Cocoa pod borer. A severe drought during the early 80's caused this pest to evolve from an insect that feasted on local fruits to attacking the abundant young cocoa pods. Again the Giants pioneered the way to combat this new threat. When the pest was first appeared cocoa was then the glamour crop with the entire country producing some 200,000 tons of cocoa beans annually, making it the third most important crop in Malaysia after Rubber and Oil Palms. The importance of the crop warranted a concerted effort, including the government, to find a solution to control this pest. Initial effort to control the pest was well coordinated. Committees were formed and experts all over the world drawn in.

The Government first ordered the practice of 'rampassen' which may have been one of the most effective control measures for CPB, but backfired due to the lack of supervision. This practice was extensively carried out in Java (Zehnter,L., 1902) before the advent of the more sophisticated chemicals now in common use. All pods, big or small are taken off the trees and destroyed during the trough months of June/July when the crop is at it's lowest. If done well, control is effective. It is very labour intensive and would require a high degree of supervision; there can be no half measures in this operation.

With the help of the CIBC (Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control) an insect pheromone was developed (Ho,S.H.,, 1987). Traps were placed in strategic positions in the field in which vials of pheromone are placed. The traps are at the same time laced with a high dose of insecticide. When the male adult moths are attracted to the traps they would come into contact with the insecticide which would kill them. Unfortunately success was very mixed. In some instances the traps worked well, in other almost not at all. This mixed bag of results raised many questions. The main queries were; the purity of the pheromone, and the possibility that some essential pheromones were missing. Before more work could be formulated, the project ran out of cash. Raising more funds were met with stern disapproval, resulting in the projects being discontinued.

Attempts to control the CPB by biological means was first considered at start of the out break of the pest. There was a measure of success. CIBC identified the parasite to be a tiny wasp commonly called the TBF (Thrichogrammatoidea Bactae Fumata) (Lim G.T., 1983) Unfortunately the process of breeding the wasp was far too difficult to implement.

The use of black ants (Dolichoderus thoracicus) to control CPB has been recorded in Indonesia, Java. The same ants appear to also reduce infestation in a Kalimantan estate. The problem with biological control is that it requires intensive and concerted research which is both expensive and time consuming. The lack of home grown experts is another problem. In the whole state of Sabah, Malaysia has but a handful of qualified entomologist. While funding grants are a problem, trying to get the farmer together to help fund a programme would be near impossible. The reason for this negative out-look is historical...because of the failure of past programmes. One of the main difficulties faced by the biological control team was the opposition from the government entomologist who was reluctant to allow the unchecked importation of too many predatory insects, such as the wasp or the ant. They were fearful of a similar problem as the cane toad in Australia and the African snail problem closer to home.

Before target spraying of pods was adopted, sleeving was the only effective measure of combating CPB. Sleeving, in which every pod with in reach was bagged using a thin transparent poly bag was highly effective. The practice never took off in Malaysia because of very high labour cost. However, in Indonesia this method of control is causing considerable interest (Wardojo S., 1984) The labour cost and availability of labour in that country may make sleeving a viable option again. The other great benefit of sleeving is that it protects the cocoa pod from every other insect as well. These methods of control were standard practice for over 5 years before the idea of target spraying took roots.

Today, the best form of control remains that of fortnightly target spraying with such 'safe' chemicals as synthetic phyrethriods. The present standard practiced of spraying the pods every 14 days is the only known practice of 100% control. Farmers use an array of 'safe' chemicals that they switch every now and then to prevent resistance to the pest. As much as 4 litres of insecticides are used annually and the cost of spraying range from US$ 120 per hectare or some 22% of the total cost of production, making it the second most expensive item in the cost of production after harvesting.

Zero-shading and chemical spraying are the two main causes for environmental concern in the industry. These two practices cause sterility to the ecosystem, removing all factors of threat while killing everything else. Regimented spraying and costly fertilizers have become the only solution in sight for the Malaysian cocoa industry. Alternative solution to the CPB problem was further investigated. "Rampassen" gave seed to crop synchronization, while the rubber hybrid gave seed to a three part plant.

The idea of crop synchronization was developed from "rampassen". D.H.K.Lim tested this simple form of crop engineering with some degree of success. He was able to artificially pollinate the cocoa tree to have them produce pods and shorten the harvesting season to a mere two months instead of the normal six. This would literally starve the CPB during months of no crop (Azhar.I. & Lim,D.H.K., 1987). The idea has potential, but the problem comes in with implementation. If some plantations are unwilling to cooperate, and do not implement the same synchronization, this method would be of no use. The problems are very similar to "rampassen" in this case.

Some farmers have suggested a three part tree to combat the CPB. This is not as far fetched as some believed. The idea was first broached in rubber. The hybridization of the three part tree would be a another crude form of plant engineering. The three segment of the plant will be divided into 1.) a root part of normal Upper Amazon X Trinitario hybrid, 2.) a main truck of Amelonado which is hypothetically more CPB tolerant, and 3.) a grafted canopy of a sterile VSD tolerant breed producing no fruits.

This three part tree could just be the magic bullet waiting for someone to discover. The advantage is potentially huge. The saving on labour use alone warrants it for further investigation. When cocoa is grown under the zero shade regime it requires as much as 70% more labour than for cocoa cultivated under the conventional system. This high labour need is of great concern to the farmers facing acute labour shortage and escalating cost. The three part tree could potentially reduce labour requirement to as such as a fifth of what is required for zero shade. It is even more labour efficient than cocoa under the conventional system.

Harvesting is a major cost item in a cocoa farm and any effort to reduce this cost would only contribute to greater profitability and efficiency. With the three part tree harvesting is made considerably more efficient. The harvester will not have to waste any time or effort to hunt for pods left hidden in the cocoa canopy. More over, cocoa canopy pods are very much more difficult to harvest than pods on the main trunk. The chores of spraying, if ever necessary, is made that much easier.

The search for this plant is critically vital if the cocoa industry of Malaysia is ever to survive into the next millenium. They have already produced a two part three, what is the difficulty in adding yet another part? They certainly have the skills and the material, all they now need, is a bit of spunk to jump start the project.

Some farmers surmised that one of the reasons why Amelonados appear less susceptible to CPB is because of its marked cropping pattern. The Amelonado cocoa has very distinct peaks. Production in a single high month may yield 25% of the year's crop while the troughs may produce nothing at all. These trough months could cause the pest to be starved off any food and may be responsible to breaking the cycle. There is increasing evidence that some cocoa varieties are less susceptible to the attack of the CPB. The Amelonado, which also has a thicker sclerotic layer, seems to deter the pest (Azhar.I. & Lim, D.H.K., 1987) Other varieties of smoother pods without too many folds also tend to deter the pest. An interesting history, CPB only began to appear when the hybrids became popular. By the time the CPB was discovered in Sabah in 1980, the Amelonado variety was no longer in popular use.

Like the solution for VSD the best answer to the CPB problem may still lie in plant breeding. The moth has a very short life span...some 4 weeks cycle only. What is needed is to break this cycle. If the cocoa were without any pods at all for a period of two to three months the cycle would most likely be broken. And if in the same token, the cocoa is also bred with an impenetrable sclerotic layer in the pod husk the chances are that it would be possible to drive the pest back to where it came from...the jungle.

Nevertheless, a three part tree does not negate the negative aspect of growing cocoa without shade. For all its hype zero shade affects not only soil temperature but also the surface temperature of the surrounding area. The cocoa canopy, if zero shade is practiced is a mere 4 metres above soil level while with shade protection, the canopy provided by the shade trees may be as much as 20 metres above the soil surface. This difference in height has considerable bearing on the micro system of the area vis-a vis air movement and ambient temperatures.

The current pest situation in Indonesia has not hit epidemic proportion. Indonesia does not practice zero shade, nor have they side-grafted VSD tolerant clones. They are at the stage Malaysia once was before zero shade evolved. The conventional art of cocoa growing taxes the environment much less then the "manufacturer style" zero shading. Less inputs is required to enable economic yield. Will Indonesia take the bait to evolve to zero shade, or will they remain as they are; a more environmentally friendly farmer?

As the need to greater yield and higher profits become a greater issue to the Indonesian small holders, they may ultimately adopt the practice zero shading and high chemical inputs. Will then the industry face the same problems as did Malaysia, following the footsteps of a dead parent, therefore reducing overall supply of cocoa and increasing commodity prices?

This two factors, zero-shading and chemical spraying are the two main causes for environmental concern in the industry. These two practices cause sterility to the ecosystem, removing all factors of treat while killing everything else. Regimented spraying and costly fertilizers have become the only solution in sight for the Malaysian cocoa industry.

The introduction of biological control for CPB is also not recommended if it is not indigenous to the ecosystem. Pheromone traps are nothing more than an attempt to curb the problem, allowing it to still flourish in other estates. The cost for such a production is also an issue. Sleeving has potential, but it is labor intensive and non-environmental friendly. The only recommended solution is the three part plant with the Amelonado hybird.

The breakthrough in the three part plant maybe the only solution which will allow Indonesia to take its logical path and still survive as a major cocoa producer.

Figure 1: The Hypothetical Three Part Cocoa Tree

Table 1: The Economics of Zero Shade vs. Conventional Shade & The Hypothetical Three Tier Tree


Azhar.I. & Lim, D.H.K. 1987. An investigation on the use of host plant resistance & crop manipulation in the management of the cocoa pod borer.

Chan Yan Hiong et. al. 198?. Commercial experience on shade management of cocoa.

Ho,S.H., 1987. A practical approach to control of cocoa pod borer using synthetic sex pheromone in an integrated system.

Lim G.T. 1983. Trichogrammatoidea Bactrae Fumata Nagraja (hymenoptera: Trichogrammatidae)- A new egg parasitoid of Acrocercops Crammerella.

Wardojo S. 1984. Kantung Plastik untuk melindungi buah cokelat dari serangan Acrocercops Crammerella.

Zehnter L. 1902. Rapport over de werkzaamheden.