Dr. Ellen Graber.

Israel's climate-resilient cocoa: Researchers identify durable variety amid war

Amid skyrocketing cocoa prices due to a global supply shortage, unique experiments by Israel’s Volcani Institute may lead to the development of an Israeli cocoa strain resistant to climate adversity

In the midst of a global cocoa crisis, which has led to shortages of beans and unprecedented spikes in prices, a breakthrough that could change the global production landscape is emerging, ironically, on the outskirts of Gaza. "We planted 150 seedlings on October 4th," said Dr. Ellen Graber from the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research in a conversation with Calcalist. "We only managed to check on their condition in mid-January, and we thought they were all dead, but we discovered that close to 20 of them survived, almost all of the same type. It's an insane selection for drought conditions. At the end of January, there was a powerful cold wave, and the seedlings survived that too. I hope all this will lead to an Israeli cocoa variety, resilient to climate extremes, suited to the Israeli environment."
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 ד"ר אלן גרבר מכון וולקני
 ד"ר אלן גרבר מכון וולקני
Dr. Ellen Graber.
(Credit: Hila Binyamin)
"There is potential for cocoa cultivation in Israel," Graber says. "It requires further research and development, but the rise in cocoa prices has made this possibility much more realistic and economically viable."
She emphasized that "Israel has a lot to contribute to the world from the knowledge we are gaining here: whether it's new strains resistant to climate extremes or diseases and adapted to Israel, and if there are cultivation techniques and methods to make cultivation more modern."
In recent years, Graber has been working on adapting cocoa varieties to Israeli growing conditions, and today the Volcani Institute cultivates around 18 different types of cocoa and conducts unique experiments unlike anywhere else in the world. If her experiments succeed, she may not only generate significant new income potential for Israel, but also lead to other countries being able to grow the coveted crop without having to maintain vast rainforest acreage.
Graber is already harvesting tree fruits, which have been growing since 2020 in Israel, researching and studying the optimal conditions for their growth and developing strains resistant to drought and disease. According to her estimates, in the coming years she will achieve a breakthrough that will surprise the world. "Today, we know how to tell farmers what to give - and how to do so - a tree so that it develops maximally and with the best yield," she says.
"It was believed that cocoa couldn't be grown without high humidity in the air, but we found that wasn’t true," she says. "We saw that what's important to maintain is moisture in the root zone, not in the air, and we learned that certain types are resistant to non-conventional temperatures. No one thought that seedlings could survive at 4-8 degrees Celsius (39-46 degrees Fahrenheit) or in extreme humidity and drought conditions."
According to the International Cocoa Organization, composed of cocoa-producing and consuming countries, the global cocoa supply shortage is expected to jump to 374,000 tons in the 2023-2024 season, from 74,000 tons in the previous season. The global cocoa supply is expected to decrease by about 11% to 4.45 million tons compared to 2022-2023, due to the damaging impact of weather conditions and resulting plant diseases. The Ghana Cocoa Board, the second-largest cocoa-growing state after Ivory Coast, has predicted that this will be the lowest yield in over 20 years.
Meanwhile, coffee production has been affected severely in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam and Indonesia, due to extreme weather. Future contracts for Robusta coffee jumped by 15% in the last month to $3,825 per ton after reaching a 29-year peak at the end of January.
70% of global cocoa production is generated in West Africa's cocoa belt, where 2 million small-scale farmers depend on cocoa for their livelihoods. However, the main growing powers, Ivory Coast and Ghana, are facing, as mentioned, catastrophic yield losses due to scorching temperatures caused by the warming El Niño phenomenon heating the ocean waters, alongside rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions leading to out-of-season heavy rains and severe heat waves.