There are many opportunities to improve the efficiency and resilience of the $54bn global cocoa sector, which has long been impacted by issues such as drought, deforestation, aging cocoa trees with lower yields, and climate change, said Niels Boetje, managing director Cargill Cocoa Europe.
Boetje added that these environmental challenges have placed increased pressure on the global cocoa supply chain, particularly on cocoa farmers.
"AeroFarms and Cargill both share a joint vision and are looking at long-term solutions to contribute to the resilience of the global food system. We think with a project like this, we can really uncover new ways of bringing new solutions and new knowledge to farmers in our supply chain," Boetje told FoodNavigator-USA.
Cargill's global cocoa and chocolate business has its own established sourcing and trading operations in the world's largest cocoa-producing regions including Brazil, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia, supported by the company's 4,100 cocoa and chocolate experts working across 57 locations.
The findings from the research collaboration will yield new insights, targeting specific factors such as faster tree growth and greater yields, accelerated development of varieties with enhanced pest and disease resistance, and unlocking the cocoa bean’s full flavor and color potential, said Cargill.
'This doesn’t mean the end product will be grown in vertical farms'
The research partnership would combine Cargill's extensive knowledge of cocoa agronomy and production practices with AeroFarms' expertise in indoor growing methods and plant science to create the optimal conditions for cocoa tree growth. The project's first phase will be about demonstrating that cocoa trees can be grown in a controlled environment, a first for AeroFarms, which has never grown trees before.
In the second phase, both companies will be focused on experimenting with ways of improving cocoa tree productivity, resiliency, and sensory attributes around taste and color. These greater understandings around cocoa trees gained from their combined research efforts will then be applied towards Cargill's global network of cocoa farming cooperatives.
However, "This doesn’t mean the end product will be grown in vertical farms," clarified David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms.
Optimizing growth cycles
Instead, AeroFarm's goal is to find ways in which it can add value to Cargill's cocoa supply chain based on its experience of running thousands of controlled experiments to optimize the growth cycles for over 550 plant varieties by adjusting specific inputs of a plant's biology.
"In our journey, we’ve realized that our impact is beyond what we could commercially grow at one of our farms, but understanding the plant and what makes the plant be the best that it can be, and what are the conditions that make the plant perform well," said Rosenberg.
"Then it’s how to deliver what the plants want. And that can be mechanically (e.g. fans, pumps, lights) -- What’s the growth media? What’s the nutrient delivery system? What’s the orientation of the lights? What’s the temperature, humidity, etc.?
"And that’s going to look very different for a cocoa plant than it would for a leafy green plant," he added.
Young plants in particular hold a lot of important information for plant science researchers, said Rosenberg, and will be a key area of focus for AeroFarms, who also just entered a partnership with Nokia Bell Labs to expand its capabilities in integrated machine vision and machine learning technologies to identify and track plant interactions at the most advanced levels.
"There’s a lot of research that we’ll put towards this to make it successful," he noted.
Still in its very initial stages, research collaboration between Cargill and AeroFarms has begun with initial exploratory work taking place at AeroFarms' global headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, and will expand to the company’s state-of-the-art AeroFarms AgX Research & Development indoor vertical farm in Abu Dhabi, UAE, a $100m project slated to open in early 2022.