U.S. government scientists aim to safeguard the world's chocolate supply by dissecting the genome of the cocoa, or cacao, bean in a five-year project that begins today.
A Miami, Florida-based U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) team with more than ten million U.S. dollars from candymaker Mars Inc. will analyze the more than 400 million parts of the cocoa genome, a process that could help battle crippling crop diseases and even lead to better tasting chocolate.
Fungal diseases are estimated to cost cocoa farmers an estimated 700 million U.S. dollars annually.
The analysis will not only identify what traits make cocoa-producing cacao trees susceptible, but it also will give scientists—and candymakers—a better understanding of every aspect of cocoa, from the ability of the trees to sustain drought to the flavor of chocolate.
"Once we have the whole genome, they'll be able to go in and look at all the genes they're interested in," said Ray Schnell, a research geneticist with the USDA, referring to candymakers. "They'll all be interested in flavor genes."
Crop Yields and Flavor Genes
The project's backers say the work could be a boon, especially to African farmers, who produce about 70 percent of the world's cocoa.
By determining which breeds of cacao trees are most appropriate for a specific locale and most able to fend off disease and drought, farmers could increase crop yields.
Though the project is funded by Virginia-based Mars—the maker of M&Ms, Snickers, and other fixtures in American chocolate—its findings will be made public.
Mars says there will be more information to examine than any one company could ever do alone and that the main reasons for cracking the genome are to combat cocoa pests and disease.
"For us, the fact that Hershey has similar information that every other chocolate company in the world has, that's fine," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars' global director of plant science, in a phone interview from Rome.
Shapiro said he did not expect improvements in yields from research would lead to larger overall cocoa crops. He said higher yields would allow farmers to devote some of their land to other lucrative crops.
Virtually no cocoa is produced in the U.S., but the USDA has an interest in the crop because so many domestically produced items (think raisins and almonds, for example) are used in chocolate products.