Cacao pioneers: Meet Penn State's Colombian Fulbright Scholars

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Four new Fulbright Scholars, who arrived at the College of Agricultural Sciences in August, are looking to economics, sociology, and soil and plant science research for ways to put Colombia at the forefront of the world's cacao production. Under the guidance of faculty at Penn State, they will attempt to tackle some of the country's most pervasive issues, from education to production challenges and corruption.

Fellows Lina Marcela Tami Barrera, Alejandro Gil Aguirre, Johann Shocker Restrepo Rubio and Jhony Armando Benavides Bolaños are participants in Cacao for Peace, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Foreign Agriculture Service (USDA-FAS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The project seeks to improve rural well-being in Colombia through agricultural development that is inclusive and sustainable with positive impact on cacao farmers' incomes, economic opportunity, stability and peace.

After a 2016 armistice, which ended more than 50 years of civil war between the Colombian government and rebel forces, strong industries are vital to the continuing peace effort. The cacao industry holds particular opportunity — it is ripe for improvement via farmer education and the implementation of new best practices in research and industry. It also offers a replacement crop for the many farmers in Colombia currently growing coca — the plant used to produce cocaine – and thereby reduces the influences of drug trafficking and corruption across the nation.

Penn State is a major partner in the Cacao for Peace project, primarily in cacao-focused research and graduate training. Led by Siela Maximova, professor of horticulture and the Cacao for Peace project's primary investigator at the University, and Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology, the Cacao for Peace graduate program at Penn State is supported by USDA-FAS, USAID and Fulbright Fellowships. The program has brought together these four students, representing a wide range of expertise, for a two-year project with a holistic approach to understanding Colombia's cacao production advantages, difficulties and future.

"When you have students working on a similar goal but coming from different perspectives and fields, it creates opportunities to find solutions to multidimensional problems, such as the situation with cacao in Colombia," said Maximova. "This is an interdisciplinary team focused on different aspects of one problem — plant science, soils, rural sociology — and they have the opportunity to come to a top institution for cacao research and create a network of professionals and academics who we hope will continue to work together after they leave Penn State."

Lina Tami, an agricultural economist with an MBA., is the group's unofficial leader. She is the chief of technology transfer and adviser to the CEO at Corpoica, a decentralized public entity of mixed nonprofit, scientific and technical participation that performs research, communicates knowledge and encourages innovation in Colombia's agricultural sectors. With over 10 years of experience working in agriculture, she hopes to gain a better understanding of why farmers, industry and other institutions fail to adopt new principles and technology developed by cacao research. At Penn State, she is working with Leland Glenna, associate professor of rural sociology.

"What is the goal that we have to pursue for this crop?” she posed. “Increase the area, increase the production, increase the quality. More income for the people. This is the crop to develop the rural areas that have war there. And I think that Colombia has a lot of resources to do that. But we have to try to develop some messages in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see the big picture."

Alejandro Gil, an agronomist and engineer at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medllín, works as a researcher for Compañía Nacional de Chocolates, where he oversees a series of diverse projects related to cacao, including breeding, agroforestry, fertilization, pest and disease management, heavy metals remediation, nursery production, somatic embryogenesis, polyphenols and co-products. He also is responsible for training groups of farmers in several Colombian states, collaborating with other institutions on research projects and serving as a representative for research committees in Colombia's agricultural sector.

Gil will work with Mark Brennan, professor of agricultural and extension education and UNESCO Chair in community, leadership and youth development, to earn a master's degree in agricultural and extension education. He sees unique opportunities, not only to grow the cacao plant, but to improve the country's industry as a whole.

"Colombia is a special country in the cacao world," he explained. "Not all countries are producers, and not all countries are consumers. Despite the fact that we are not the biggest producer by volume, our country is an important player in the fine and flavor cacao market. We also have a lot of chocolate consumption in our culture, which is not common in producing countries. We also have a big chocolate industry. So our country has many characteristics that make us special."

Johann Restrepo, an agronomist at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, will work with Maximova and Guiltinan to examine the effects of infection with Moniliophthora roreri fungus, which causes the disease known as "frosty pod rot," on cacao. The research will focus on the diversity of genes involved in cacao’s resistance to the fungus, which threatens cacao production in many areas in Central and South America.

Restrepo has hands-on experience with agriculture, having helped to manage his grandmother's farm in Colombia for the past four years. His interests include establishing best practices that can be used on cacao farms to improve production and sustainability and reduce waste. He is pursuing a master's degree in horticultural science.

"I am half a researcher in the lab, and the other half of my career and professional life is being a farmer and seeing how real things happen," he said. "So this experience is important for me because we are involving both extension and education."

Restrepo is also interested in the long-term sustainability of the industry. For cacao, a plant which can take three years to produce its first fruit, implementing processes that can be maintained by growers, the economy and the environment is especially important.

"We are interested in the concept called ‘triple bottom line,’ taking into account social, environmental and economic issues. That framework will be valuable for us as we evaluate whether the work we are doing is successful."

Jhony Benavides is an agricultural engineer and precision-agriculture researcher at Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. His work focuses on the applications of geographic information systems to model cultivation systems in Colombia, particularly in Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño highlands. His primary interest lies in the analysis and modelling of agricultural soils, focusing on relationships among the soil-atmosphere-water-plant system of cocoa crops.

Benavides also studies how this system is affected by cadmium presence in soils and its later consequences in a complex market dynamic. At Penn State, he is working to earn a master's degree in soil science with Patrick Drohan, associate professor of pedology, by studying the effects of cadmium content in soil on cacao production. He plans to use his research and other information he learns in the Fulbright program to advise cacao producers on how they can meet new European Union cadmium regulations and supply more Colombian cacao to Europe.

Benavides sees a future where interdisciplinary programs like the one being pioneered at Penn State foster connections between what are currently separate disciplines related to cacao. "We come from different institutions — the public sector, the private sector, universities — and it will be important to keep these relationships," he explained.

"Having studied here will give us credibility in the eyes of academics, government officials and businesses in Colombia. After this, we will have the opportunity to present new ideas to different kinds of authorities, and they will listen to us and be interested because we have studied how to enhance rural development at one of the best universities in the world."

Lina Tami agrees. "We are a team," she said. "And we will go back to our country to work together on different aspects of this issue. I think it will be a very important part of the peace process in Colombia."

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Last Updated November 02, 2017