La Trobe University researchers will lead the five-year effort to save the struggling industry thanks to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade funding.
La Trobe research fellow Philip Keane said cocoa production in PNG had dropped by 80 per cent due to the arrival of the cocoa pod borer, an Indonesian pest.
“It’s a little tiny moth that lays its eggs on the surface of the pods, then the larvae hatch out and burrow into the pods and damage the beans inside the pods,” Dr Keane said.
“It probably cut cocoa production in Papua New Guinea by 80 per cent in the provinces where the pest first attacked, and then it gradually spread pretty well throughout Papua New Guinea.
“That was on top of another couple of local pests and diseases that had been a problem for many years.”
Dr Keane said the project would push for villagers to introduce new cocoa plant ‘clones’ developed by PNG scientists which were small, high yielding and resistant to pests and diseases.
“This is a socio-economic rather than a purely technical project,” Dr Keane said.
“We will work with villagers in four provinces (New Ireland, Madang, East Sepik and Chimbu) to train cocoa farmers, who will then return to their home villages and train and provide sustained, day-to-day support for other farmers on a fee-for-service basis.”
The cocoa industry has accounted for almost 20 per cent of PNG’s agricultural exports and directly affects the livelihoods of 150,000 farming families, Dr Keane said.
The urgent action was critical for world chocolate production to keep up with demand, particularly in the Asian market, Dr Keane said.
“The world demand for chocolate is going up steadily, but the world production of cocoa beans is to some extent stagnant because of problems like these pests and diseases,” he said.