Thursday AM September 16th, 2010

Researchers have released a nearly complete preliminary mapping of the DNA of the tree that produces chocolate. The project’s head says he hopes it leads to higher yields and more drought-and disease-resistant trees. Ed Mayberry reports.


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cacao treeThere are some 6.5 million farmers around the world who depend on cocoa for their livelihoods, and the crop is often crucial for the economies of their nations.  A collaboration between Mars, the Department of Agriculture and others has lead to the preliminary cacao genome sequence.  Howard-Yana Shapiro is global director of plant science for Mars.

“The ability to map the cocoa genome and release that information to scientists around the world allows an acceleration of breeding, to help change the lives of these people.  I mean our goals in many places of the world where the yields are quite, quite low is to triple or quadruple the yields, to help stabilize the economic rural sector to bring pest and disease, to keep the quality high and make sure the flavor doesn’t disappear in this beloved product called chocolate.”

Seventy percent of cocoa is produced in West Africa.  The Genome sequence is being made available to the public domain.

“These farmers who dedicate their lives — six-and-a-half million of them — to producing the cocoa beans which make chocolate, they needed to join a more modern agricultural movement.  I was given the opportunity to really consider many of the crops that we produce for not only the chocolate business but our gum business with Wrigley.  Cocoa lacked international collaboration that would allow for the advancement of the benefit of the cocoa farmers to a sustainable economy as quick as I felt it was necessary.”

Shapiro hopes scientists and farmers around the world will be able to develop cacao trees that are more sustainable, and can better resist environmental assaults that cause $700 to $800 million in damages to crops each year.  He says although the $10 million scientific investment may not benefit the bottom line of Mars in the short term, in the long run it will ensure mutually beneficial results for the company, cocoa farmers and tree crop production.

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