Vietnam will expand its cocoa cultivation areas to take advantage of high global demand and rising prices, as well as unstable production from the world's major cocoa growers, according to industry officials.

Speaking at a meeting on the industry's development, Dr Tong Khiem, director of the National Agriculture and Fisheries Extension Centre, said that although Vietnam began planting cocoa trees in 1980, the industry did not prosper until 2005.

Industry growth was spurred by assistance from international organisations, the Vietnamese Government policies and higher prices for cocoa beans.

Vietnam has about 16,725ha under cocoa cultivation, a four-fold increase compared to five years ago.

The trees are planted in mainly in 10 provinces, including Ben Tre, Tien Giang, Dak Nong, Dak Lak, Binh Phuoc and Ba Ria-Vung Tau, producing some 2,500 tonnes of dried beans a year.

The country plans to expand cultivation to 40,000ha by 2015 and to 50,000ha by 2020.

The yield would be around 26,000 and 52,000 tonnes, respectively, an official said at a conference in HCM City on Dec.30.

Cocoa is mostly grown under the shade of other crops, such as coconut palms and coffee trees.

Nguyen Van Hoa, deputy head of the ministry's Cultivation Department, said although there was an increase in cocoa plantation areas, the planting was scattered and small-scale, causing difficulties to production and consumption.

To meet the planning target, the ministry will check zoning plans for cocoa cultivation in southern provinces.

Based on the zoning plans, each province will set up specific projects for cocoa development, Hoa said.

Since cocoa is still a relatively new tree in Vietnam , not much research has been conducted on the plant.

Hoa said that scientists and agricultural research institutes should focus more on research to create new high-quality seedlings, better cultivation techniques, and measures to prevent and control insects.

The Government would set aside funds for scientific research to develop new seeds, construct new infrastructure projects in rural areas and support farmers when they shift to growing cocoa trees, he said.

The Government is also encouraging cooperation between concerned agencies and the private sector to develop the cocoa industry.

His department will work with local authorities to organise agricultural extension programmes to provide farmers with skills and techniques in growing, harvesting and processing cocoa.

Hoa also recommended that farmers not harvest the beans before adequate maturity so as to ensure cocoa quality.

Speaking at the conference, Dr Pham Hong Duc Phuoc of the HCM City 's Agriculture and Forestry University said Vietnam should establish standards for cocoa quality and develop more agricultural extension programmes that would teach new planting techniques to farmers.

While global demand for cocoa will increase by 2-4 percent, or 100,000-200,000 tonnes per year, the world's cocoa output will only rise about 2 percent a year, Hoa said .

The supply from the world's largest cocoa producers, Ghana , Ivory Coast , Nigeria and Cameroon accounts for 70 percent of the world's cocoa output.

But supply from those countries is no longer stable, Hoa said, adding that many cocoa processing plants in Southeast Asia were operating at only 60 percent of their capacity due to raw material shortages.

Besides traditional markets like the US and Western Europe, the demand for cocoa from China , India and Eastern Europe has also increased recently, he said.