Science aims to protect cocoa

Government scientists are launching a five-year project aimed at safeguarding the world's chocolate supply by dissecting the genome of the cocoa bean.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture team funded with more than $10 million from 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 $700 million annually. The analysis will not only identify what traits make cacao trees susceptible, but it will allow scientists – and candy makers – to better understand every aspect of cocoa, from its ability to sustain drought to the way it tastes.

“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 candy makers. “They'll all be interested in flavor genes.”

The project's backers say the work stands to be a boon to farmers, largely in Africa, 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 Mars – the maker of M&M's, Snickers and other fixtures in American chocolate – its findings will be made public, even to its competitors. 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.

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 important to chocolate.