Cacao provides an alternative to illicit production of coca for Colombian farmers

Image credit: Bigstock

Image credit: Bigstock


How can Colombian farmers make a sustainable living without growing illicit but profitable crops such as coca (the plant used to produce cocaine)?

  • Fifty-three years of civil war have negatively impacted the agricultural investments and growth of Colombian farms.
  • Disadvantaged farmers grew coca and marijuana either by force or because it was the only option during the conflict.


Plant scientists at Penn State are contributing their expertise on the genetics and the cultivation of the historical cacao plant to provide a road map for the post-conflict agricultural development of an alternative crop that is both profitable and sustainable. Cacao, the principal ingredient in chocolate, is native to Colombia, which already produces some of the finest-flavored cocoa in the world.


Cacao provides a new opportunity to support legal agricultural development in Colombia as the global demand for chocolate is continually increasing. The Cacao for Peace initiative provides training for the difficult-to-grow crop and seeks to make Colombia a major player in world cacao markets. By mapping the genetic diversity of cacao, the team will be able to trace early species of cacao to their origins and possibly identify the genes that are responsible for disease resistance.

Related Research Area: Advanced Agricultural and Food Systems

Research Credit


Participating Departments


  • USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Agency for International Development, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the Peace Corps, Corporación Colombiana de Investigación Agropecuaria (AGROSAVIA), the Colombian National Federation of Cocoa ( Fedecacao ), and Purdue University

Competitive Funding

  • USDA Foreign Agricultural Service; U.S. Agency for International Development

Federal and State Appropriations

  • USDA NIFA Hatch Multistate Project PEN04569, Accession #1003147

Emerging Discoveries

Published Research

Gene Expression Modularity Reveals Footprints of Polygenic Adaptation in Theobroma cacao

Widely distributed variation in tolerance to Phytophthora palmivora in four genetic groups of cacao

Resistant and susceptible cacao genotypes exhibit defense gene polymorphism and unique early responses to Phytophthora megakarya inoculation

Transient expression of CRISPR/Cas9 machinery targeting TcNPR3 enhances defense response in theobroma cacao

Office for Research and Graduate Education


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Office for Research and Graduate Education


217 Agricultural Administration Building
University Park, PA 16802-2600