Cocoa genome 'will save chocolate industry'

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News, Zurich

Image caption,
In some areas, cocoa growers are facing a "crunch"

The public release of the genome of the cacao tree - from which chocolate is made - will save the chocolate industry from collapse, a scientist has said.

Howard Yana-Shapiro, a researcher for Mars, said that without engineering higher-yielding cacao trees, demand would outstrip supply within 50 years.

Dr Yana-Shapiro said such strains will also help biodiversity and farmers' welfare in cacao-growing regions.

The genome's availability is likely to lead to healthier, tastier chocolate.

The sequencing of the genome was an international, multidisciplinary effort between firms including Mars and IBM, the US department of agriculture and a number of universities, and was announced in September.

Dr Shapiro, once described as a "biodiversifarian", was speaking at an event at IBM's research labs in Zurich when he called the date the genome was released "the greatest day of my life".

"In late 2007, it became very apparent to me that we would not have a continuous supply of cocoa going into the future if we did not intervene on a massive scale to secure our supply chain."

"Cote d'Ivoire is the largest producer of cocoa in the world," Dr Shapiro continued. "Mars has bought cocoa from there for sixty years - but when we started to understand the environmental and ecological conditions, the productivity, sociocultural and economic conditions, I realised this was a moment of crisis for this region."

What is at issue is both the inherent yield of varying strains of the Theobroma cacao tree, which on average currently produce 400 kilograms per hectare of land. What is needed is to make more cocoa from fewer trees and less land.

"In 10 years, under a 2% increase in consumption we will need (an area corresponding to) another Cote d'Ivoire. There is no more place to grow it, productivity with less land must be our driver."

The genetic codes of major global staple crops such as rice and wheat have been decoded, with a view to improving yields or nutritive properties. However, those crops are grown principally on large, industrial farms.

Cocoa, by comparison, is grown for the most part on small farms by individual farmers and sold on in a less centralised market.

Disease and drought

For that reason, Dr Shapiro said, increases to yields or the cocoa butter and fat content - for which cocoa farmers are actually paid - could directly affect the lives of some 6.5 million small farmers around the globe.

Image caption,
Dr Shapiro says the date the cocoa genome was released was the "greatest day" of his life

Under his direction, the consortium sequenced the Theobroma cacao genome in a remarkably short time, finishing three years ahead of schedule.

The whole of the genome was first published, as Dr Shapiro puts it, "in the public domain and protected from patenting for perpetuity - so everyone would have free and continued access to it".

Now correlations between certain characteristics - such as disease and drought resistance or higher proportions of healthier fats - can be made in the field with the benefit of relatively inexpensive laboratory equipment. In this way, each region ensures it has strains that will produce the most, and the best, cocoa.

There are a number of other characteristics that, in time, may be maximised on a genetic basis - such as the level of chemicals known as flavinols, which have been implicated in laboratory tests of heart health.

'Ecological stability'

"Soon it will be the norm as opposed to the exception: healthy fats, high levels of flavinols, so that chocolate will actually become something quite different. Whether that's 10, 15 20 years away, it's on that track now."

Higher yields will free up land for other under-utilised crops in the region such as yams, sorghum and plantains. Dr Shapiro sees such small changes - that a chocolate consumer never sees - as a tangible human benefit of science-driven agriculture.

"It gives you social stability in the rural sector, it gives you cultural stability that doesn't break up the rural sector, it gives you environmental stabilty because we're reducing the risk to the environment from agricultural chemistry, it gives you ecological stability because we're protecting the remnant forest, it also sequesters carbon," he said.

"This is the really 'Green Revolution' of understanding the entire ecosystem from which you are working."

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