An environmental breakthrough has never sounded so….delicious. Today, candy giant Mars Inc, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and IBM announced that they have mapped a preliminary genome sequence for the cacao plant, which produces the crucial ingredient for making chocolate, and placed it in the public domain.
The sequencing will allow farmers to plant more robust, high yielding and drought and disease-resistant trees, and thus continue to provide a steady stream of cocoa crop in the face of climate change. Unlike most of the other major commodity crops, cocoa is grown by around 6.5 million small farmers (from the seeds of the cacao tree), as opposed to large conglomerates. Recently, environmental strains in the form of increased heat and drought has cost these farmers around $800 million a year in damages—farmers have suffered most in West Africa, a region that produces 70% of the world’s cocoa.
Even though the U.S. does not grow cocoa, the U.S. government participated in the research, led by Mars, because chocolate provides such a boost to other products that are grown in the U.S. For every dollar of cocoa imported, $1 to $2 of domestic agricultural products, such as peanuts and milk, are used in making chocolate products.
Mars has made the genome sequence public so that the research centers in cocoa-growing countries can eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional crop cultivation, said Howard-Yana Shapiro, global staff officer of plant science and research at Mars. Once scientists identify useful genes, they’ll be able to accelerate the breeding process, and develop new lines of cocoa plants with desirable traits. It will also help Mars in the long run, of course, by guaranteeing a steady supply of cocoa, and perhaps also allowing farmers to selectively breed for better tasting cocoa, or cocoa with higher concentrations of flavanols, antioxidants that may reduce bad cholesterol and which Mars and other chocolate companies have used to market chocolate.
Shapiro added that higher yields from cacao trees will allow farmers to diversify their crop-portfolio by using less land to grow cocoa. “This isn’t about clearing more forest,” he says.
Mars and the U.S. government aren’t the only ones working on sequencing the DNA of the cocoa bean. According to the New York Times,
The [Mars Inc} announcement upstages a consortium involving French government laboratories and Pennsylvania State University that is backed in part by a competitor of Mars, Hershey. This group says it has also completed the sequence, but cannot discuss it until its paper analyzing the genome is published in a scientific journal. The rivalry between the two big chocolate companies’ projects in some ways mirrors what occurred in the race to sequence the human genome, between Celera Genomics and the publicly financed Human Genome Project. That battle was officially declared a tie.
Whoever deserves credit, it’s clear that all chocolate companies—all of which essentially use the same suppliers—will benefit from Mars’ work, but, Shapiro insists, Mars waiss happy to share because “this effort is about taking an under-served population and giving it the chance to flourish.” Certainly, Mars has been promoting its corporate social responsibility lately—last year it announced that all its chocolate products will be made from sustainable sources by 2020.
Despite its seeming ubiquity on newsstands, chocolate is reliant on a notoriously fragile crop that has been plagued by pests and disease. In the 1980s, Brazil was a top cocoa exporter. Then a fungus known as witches’ broom infected cacao trees and decimated the industry. Unlike corn, wheat and rice, Cocoa is often described as an “orphan crop” because it has been the subject of little agricultural research. With this recent breakthrough, however, scientists say they have moved closer to ensuring the success of the crop, and so too the success of small farmers in some of the most climate-vulnerable places on the planet, and of course also the happiness of millions of chocolate-loving customers.