After surviving October 7, Israeli cocoa plants could help stave off world shortage

Chocolate-loving Ellen Graber’s ‘superhero’ seedlings, forced to fend for themselves after Hamas attack, survived 3.5 months without water or fertilizer, suggesting high resilience

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Ellen Graber poses with one of her cacao plants at the Volcani Center in central Israel. (Courtesy: Ellen Graber)
Ellen Graber poses with one of her cacao plants at the Volcani Center in central Israel. (Courtesy: Ellen Graber)

An Israeli scientist is working to produce a “superhero” cocoa plant that can help global growers of the main ingredient in chocolate withstand the effects of extreme climate events and stave off the resulting crop damage and record-breaking prices currently being seen worldwide.

Ellen Graber, a soil chemistry expert whose love of chocolate propelled her into cocoa cultivation, told The Times of Israel that Israeli plant scientists knew how to solve problems of pests and pathogens, water, soil and climate. While not familiar with cocoa, they were successfully growing other tropical crops, such as mangos, bananas and avocados.

“I believe we have something to offer,” she said.

Cocoa pods hang from one of Ellen Graber’s plants at the Volcani Center, central Israel. (Courtesy: Ellen Graber)

Climate change, exacerbated at present by a phenomenon known as El Nino, has brought heavy rain, widespread flooding, and fungal disease to bear on the October to March crop now coming to an end in West Africa, which supplies three-quarters of the world’s cocoa beans.

Ivory Coast farmers, for example, shipped 29% less to the ports this year than last year’s equivalent season. The season starting in April is expected to yield 33% less.

Graber explained that the rains were now being followed by unusually hot and dry conditions, heaping additional stress on the small evergreen trees that survived.

Cocoa prices per dry ton, which have averaged $2,500 in recent years, just reached a record-breaking $10,000, she added.

But climate change was already impacting cocoa cultivation before El Nino, she noted. It was a key factor in the industry moving its main plantations from the American tropics, where cocoa is native, to West Africa.

In this file photo taken on May 31, 2011, farmer Alidou Ouedraogo arranges drying cocoa beans as he prepares to cover them for the night, on a cocoa farm outside the village of Fangolo, near Duekoue, Ivory Coast. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

“Climate change is a real enemy of the cocoa-growing industry,” Graber said. “It’s either too wet to too dry or too hot. The soils have very low fertility. Farmers are very poor. They don’t have the ability to buy inputs. It’s all at the edge of viability and has been for some time.”

Chocolate lover

It was after reading media reports some six years ago about the problems facing the industry that Graber, a chocolate lover, decided to act.

“I just knew I loved chocolate,” she recalled, “so I began learning what was going on and what the cultivation problems were. The more I understood, the more I thought maybe we could do something at [agricultural research center] Volcani, because these are not insurmountable problems.

“We know how to grow stuff when the climate isn’t ideal.”

Her initial plans to bring clones of plants from the International Cocoa Quarantine Center in the United Kingdom were scuttled by the COVID-19 epidemic. Cuttings would have had to be flown to Israel within a day of being taken, and international flights had ground to a halt.

Instead, the center mailed her seeds from some 18 varieties whose flowers had undergone open pollination. The “fathers” of the seeds were not known.

Some of Ellen Graber’s cocoa plants taking part in a nutrition experiment at a greenhouse in central Israel. (Courtesy: Ellen Graber)

From these seeds, Graber grew a first generation in her greenhouses, whose seeds then germinated to provide a second generation.

On October 4 last year, she sent 140 of a planned 300 plants, aged around five months, to a research and development station a few kilometers from the Gaza border in southern Israel.

Three days later, on October 7, thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded border communities, massacring 1,200 people and kidnapping 253.

The area where the R&D center is located became part of a closed military zone.

‘Superhero’ plants survive wartime deprivation

Staff at the research center had not had time to transplant the seedlings from their three-liter pots.

“There was no electricity, and the plants received no fertilizer or water until mid-January,” Graber said. “It rained a bit, but not much and not regularly. They were in a net house left to their own devices. We expected to find 140 dead cocoa plants.”

But when staff scientist Talli Ilani returned, she discovered that 20 of the plants had survived and were even having new leaf flushes.

“Most of the survivors came from one of five or six varieties that I had sent. This indicates that this variety has a huge ability to survive under severe drought conditions.”

Right after the first visit in January, the surviving plants were exposed to nighttime temperatures as low as 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 degrees Fahrenheit) — unusual for the region. They pulled through.

“Still unprotected, they made it. I brought them back to Volcani, transplanted them, and they’re surviving.”

She added, “I call them superheroes.”

One of Ellen Graber’s ‘superhero’ cocoa plants back home at the Volcani Center, central Israel, after surviving for an extended period without water or fertilizer. (Courtesy: Ellen Graber)

Graber said she hoped government budget cuts would not affect her project, which she has dubbed the Cocoa Cure Center.

The Volcani Center, an agricultural research body, saw its budget for the current year slashed by 21 percent due to wartime exigencies. On Monday, it got an infusion of around NIS 20 million ($5.5 million) from the Agriculture Ministry, and negotiations for more cash are ongoing.

Graber, originally from New York, said that despite keen interest from Israeli farmers, the country is too small to become a chocolate superpower.

But it could become a key global supplier of cocoa plants and cultivation know-how.

“I see this as a kernel, not only of a new crop for Israel, but actually for helping to populate the cocoa-growing regions of the world with plants that can withstand the challenges we are facing,” Graber said.

She said she had not engaged in any genetic modification, but rather in crossbreeding and monitoring the behavior of different plants. The next steps included analyzing the genetic profiles of the superhero plants, working out which creatures were pollinating them — a mystery not yet resolved in Africa either — and testing the plant’s resistance to fungal pathogens.

“There’s a lot to do before something becomes a cultivar that can be sold,” she said. “But it’s work that’s so greatly needed.”

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