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Magic beans

Researchers in our Future Food Beacon of Excellence and Faculty of Engineering are working across the cocoa supply chain to unlock the full potential of this mighty little bean for all.
Connect Research Magic beans

Chocolate – many of us say we just couldn’t live without it. In times of strife, joy or just plain boredom, that rich, velvety taste can prove irresistible. But cocoa is so much more than a quick pick-me-up after a hard day at work – for millions of cocoa farmers across the world, it is everything.

90% of the world’s cocoa is grown on small family farms in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But rising production costs, competitive global trading markets and new regulations, make growing cocoa a challenging task.

Vulnerable to pests and diseases, cocoa trees take 5 years to reach peak production levels and can continue for 10 years with the right care. Yet despite a lucrative global cocoa trade, few farmers see the real economic benefits of their efforts.

Our researchers are working across the cocoa supply chain to help improve the livelihoods and outcomes of cocoa producers. By building a global stakeholder network that includes corporate, research and industry partners, we can drive sustainable change and help smallholder farmers obtain the best deal possible for their cocoa.

Here are three ways our research is helping to make a real difference. 


1. Controlling cadmium uptake

In January 2019, the European Union introduced legislation that reduced the allowable limits of cadmium in cocoa beans. Since beans grown in different parts of the world naturally have different levels of cadmium, this could prevent some farmers from accessing the higher-paying ‘bean to bar’ market, thereby limiting their options.

In collaboration with the Cocoa Research Centre, University of the West Indies, we have been investigating ways to produce cocoa beans that are naturally low in cadmium, wherever in the world they are grown.

“We know there is a large natural variation for cadmium accumulation,” explains Professor David Salt, Future Food Director and Professor of Genome Enabled Biology. “We sampled over 500 different cocoa plant varieties, thanks to the germplasm hosted at the Cocoa Research Centre in Trinidad and Tobago. We discovered that variation occurred even when the plants grow in the same soil, suggesting that this variation in cadmium accumulation is in the beans.“

Because of the urgency, we’re exploring two solutions to help growers. In the short-term, we’re testing a grafting approach. This is where we graft the shoot stock of the variety the farmer wants onto the rootstock of a low-cadmium variety.

“Long-term, we’re identifying the genes which control cadmium accumulation" continues Professor Salt. "We can then use molecular assisted breeding to grow plants that have the right genes for low cadmium cocoa. With our work in the public domain, it means we can offer all farmers low-cadmium plants in the varieties that they know and love.”

"We know there is a large natural variation for cadmium accumulation. We sampled over 500 different cocoa plant varieties and discovered that variation occurred even when the plants grow in the same soil."
Professor David Salt, Future Food Director and Professor of Genome Enabled Biology


2. From bean to bar

The Future Food Beacon is working to help female smallholder cocoa producers in Columbia get more for their beans by directly accessing the UK’s premium chocolate market. And not just any chocolate maker but Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates in Sneinton, Nottingham, who advocate a ‘bean to bar’ approach to chocolate production. Consumers can enjoy this luxury product knowing where the chocolate is farmed, and the farmers who grow and tend the beans.

“By enabling growers to understand their cocoa bean post-harvest fermentation processes, we can help them to consistently produce a much higher-quality product,” explains Professor Salt.

“Fermentation is really important for the flavour. Our researchers are sequencing the DNA in the fermentation process, exploring how the microbial population changes and how that connects to the end flavour. We can then work with the farmers to develop practical ways to help them drive the way their fermentation behaves.

“These new technologies are helping to bring the consumer and producer much closer together. By working with a range of partners including the Federación Nacional de Cacaoteros, Casa Luker and supported by Innovate UK, we can create stronger, fairer relationships and a better deal for everyone involved.”


3. Turning waste to wealth

Once the beans are harvested, what happens to the pod husks? Our researchers have spotted a unique opportunity to turn this waste product into a new bio-fuel, helping support Ghanaian farming communities who currently have little or no access to mains grid power.

“Ghana is the second highest producer of cocoa in the world and every ton of cocoa beans harvested generates 10 tons of cocoa pod husks. In the past, this waste material was underutilized,” explains principal investigator Jo Darkwa, Professor of Energy Storage Technologies in the Faculty of Engineering.

“However, feasibility studies indicate that cocoa pod husks could be converted into valuable bio-fuels, an important energy supply for rural areas that have only 15% electricity coverage at present.”

In addition to energy production and distribution, local jobs would emerge for the collection, treatment, storage and processing of this potentially lucrative by-product. In a further step to help reduce poverty and improve outcomes, a community energy cooperative model will also help the farmers to make money from their new bio-energy source.

Ghana is the second highest producer of cocoa in the world and every ton of cocoa beans harvested generates 10 tons of cocoa pod husks.
Principal Investigator Jo Darkwa, Professor of Energy Storage Technologies in the Faculty of Engineering

Read more in Vision - our research magazine 

From beans to biofuels >