photo by Guy Mullins (dotguy_az on Flickr CC)

Multinational chocolate giant Mars, working with the US Department of Agriculture and IBM, have sequenced the genome of the cocoa tree.

Rather than patenting the genome, it’s been released into the public domain. Unlocking the genetic secrets of chocolate, scientists say, could revolutionize cocoa farming in the developing world, especially in West African nations.

Cocoa production is severely hampered by pests and fungal diseases, which regularly cause hundreds of millions of euros in losses in West African chocolate producing nations like Ghana and the Ivory Coast as well as Brazil, the world’s second largest producer.

From an article in the Independent:

About 6.5 million mostly subsistence-farmers grow cocoa, which is then processed into a luxury food for Western markets in a business predicted to be worth $13bn next year. Although the price has rocketed in recent years, low prices have historically led to trees becoming neglected by farmers, meaning that cocoa production has struggled to keep pace with demand, which is rising by 3 per cent a year.

Besides the obvious benefits to the chocolate industry, cracking cacao’s genetic code brings up controversial issues surrounding the GM foods. Yet some scientists argue that higher cacao yields will enable farmers to diversify their crops and grow other edible and saleable produce on their plots. Mars deny that cacao prices will drop, citing ‘growing demand’.

And what of the benefits to the actual growers? The cacao industry in West Africa has strong connections to child labor, slavery and human trafficking. That’s what those ‘fair trade’ chocolate bar labels are all about. So maybe the only true beneficiaries of this breakthrough will be Mars and its ilk.

Read more about chocolate and slavery here and about where to get slave-free chocolate here.

See this video from Al Jazeera English for more on the unraveling of the cacao genome:

Sweet success for scientists

Additional resources:

Cacao Genome Database

About The Author: Graham Land

Greenfudge editor and London-based writer Graham Land grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where he was part of the local hardcore punk scene, playing in several bands. Through this musical movement he became involved in grass roots interests such as anti-racist activism, animal rights and Ecology. In 2000 he relocated to Europe, eventually earning an MA from Malmö University in Sweden. He has also lived in Japan, Ireland, Portugal and Greece.


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