What do you do?

Iam a cocoa scientist. There’s some serious science behind that chocolate bar you just ate.

For many of us, a life without chocolate would be a very sad thing, but there’s more than our taste buds at stake. There’s a whole economy that depends on it.

“It” is actually the cocoa bean, without which M&Ms, Snickers bars, and hot fudge sundaes would not exist and millions of people would lose their livelihood. The bean is the fruit of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao means “food of the gods”), which was domesticated by the Mayans 1500 years ago from its origins in the Amazon rain forest.

The tree, when domesticated, is about the size of an apple tree and thrives in hot, rainy climates around the equator. Four to five million farmers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America grow the cacao tree. The cacao butter is also used in some soaps and cosmetics.

Unlike other more perishable crops, cocoa beans can be stored for months at a time, and people in developing countries can use them to buy food and clothing. Cocoa also protects the landscape: cacao trees grow better under shade and help to protect the biodiversity in the tropical regions of the world.

What role do you play?

Every year, one-third of cocoa crops don’t survive. The trees succumb to many pests and diseases that destroy the fruit and consequently reduce the income of their growers.

The major diseases are caused by fungi, and they have quite strange names, such as witches’ broom disease, frosty pod rot, and black pod. These names are based on what the disease does to the appearance of the cocoa pods or the tree branches. Certain insects (e.g., cocoa pod borer, cocoa mirids) also cause major problems for farmers in Asia and West Africa by boring into the fruit or chewing them.

That’s where i comes in. A microbiologist for Mars Inc. working in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Hebbar travels all over the world, working with scientists from the chocolate-producing countries and cocoa farmers to help them reduce pests and diseases and produce better crops using sustainable methods. “I talk to them directly or with in some cases through an interpreter,” he says. “We also work in the farmer field schools.”

In these schools, the farmers come and share their traditional knowledge and also receive training on how to improve their production. Usually, Dr. Hebbar says, these are villagers with strong leadership abilities who will take what they learn and share it with other farmers as a group. Dr. Hebbar and the other scientists literally go into the field with the farmers, who show them the problems with their crops, so learning is a two-way street between the growers and the scientists.

When Cogito talked to Dr. Hebbar, he had just returned from Cameroon, in West/Central Africa, where he was working with scientists and farmers to find ways to reduce the damage caused by the black pod fungus. This fungus is related to the one that caused the famous Irish potato blight in the 1840s.

What did you study to get here?

I did my PhD, Plant Microbiology, Australian National University, 1986
Master’s, Medical Microbiology, Mysore University (India), 1977
Bachelor’s, Biology, Mysore University, 1973