Rather than throwing away nature’s chocolate wrapper Queensland scientists may be able to use them to solve the world’s chocolate shortage.
Using the husk of the cacao bean around cocoa trees has been found to increase the pollinator population, tripling the number of fruit on each tree on average.
James Cook University graduate student Samantha Forbes re-worked the idea from old texts to spread the husks on the ground around the trees.
“I did some research and globally all cacao crops seem to have shortfall in pollination,” Ms Forbes said.
“The trees themselves will produce sometimes over 25,000 flowers a year and below 10 per cent of those flowers actually get pollinated.
“For some reason there was possibly a problem with the abundance of pollinators that are in the plantations.”
After consulting older texts on the pollination of the plants it became apparent there was a problem with habitat for the pollinators, a tiny midge.
The problem was cocoa crops had become too clean and well maintained, leaving little habitat for the midge to lay their eggs.
That is when Ms Forbes came up with the idea for littering the base of the trees with the husks of the fruit in order to increase the yield of the crop.
Not only did the test increase the population of the midges and the number of fruits on a tree, it had a flow-on effect reducing the need for pesticides, Dr Tobin Northfield, co-author of the study said.
“We found that you can not only increase pollination rates dramatically you can increase the abundance of native predators that may be consuming some of the pests as well,” Dr Northfield said.
The rotting fruit husks make habitat for the midge, but also for skinks and spiders that feed on the pests that plague the crops.
But with the mess comes the fear of attracting new pests to the crops, such as the cocoa pod borer, which has reached Australian shores, but was eradicated in 2011.
Both the scientists hope the method could be adopted internationally and were looking for new partners to build on their research.
Large scale cocoa crops have largely been prohibitive in Australia due to labor costs, Dr Northfield said to offset those costs farmers needed to get as high a yield as possible.
Ms Forbers’ search to make cocoa farming better began while studying venomous reptiles at university, in a class called agricultural ecology, which taught the benefits of environmentally sustainable farming.
This is where she found her passion for the tropical crop that produces chocolate and while there she contacted a chocolate company and signed on to do some research for them.
She knew cacao was a growth market, with current world supply not meeting demand for chocolate, but Ms Forbes also realised the necessity for care to be taken with intensified farming practices.
With the burgeoning cocoa industry in Queensland – about 16 hectares were in production last year Ms Forbes said – she saw the potential for the crop in Australia.
As are farmers in the tropical north of the state, with Ms Forbes hearing of interest from sugar cane, paw paw and banana farmers looking to diversify.