Mars, U.S. Department of Agriculture and IBM release preliminary cacao genome sequence to public domain.
Chocolate is not only sweet business, it's big business. In 2011, the global chocolate industry is expected to grow to $13 billion. But all that chocolate is not without some pretty heavy costs. In any given year, pests and disease can wipe out an entire harvest for a cocoa farmer. In fact, crop losses from pests and disease inflict $700 to $800 million in damages to farmers each year, creating a devastating ripple effect for 6.5 million farmers in Southeast Asia, West Africa and South America that rely on cocoa production for their livelihoods.
To maximize yields and to hedge against devastating crop damage, most cocoa farmers use large doses of pesticides and insecticides on their crops -- sometimes employing questionable child labor practices to do so (although there is evidence of improvement in the case of the latter).
Yet when compared to other agricultural crops (eg. corn, soybeans and wheat) there has been very little investment in scientific research to improve the cacao tree and its ability to resist pests and disease -- until now.
In a collaborative research initiative between the world's biggest chocolate company, Mars, Inc., the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service and IBM, scientists today announced that they have successfully sequenced the genome for theobroma cacao, the tree that bears chocolate's essential fruit -- the cocoa bean.
"Cacao farmers lose up to 80 percent of their production due to pest and diseases,” said one of the researchers on the project, Dr. Juan Carlos Motamayor, tropical agronomist and the Scientific Research Manager for the Cocoa Sustainability Program at Mars, in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Dr. Motomayor said that mapping the cacao genome sequence will improve the cocoa growing process and bolster the efficiency of traditional breeding programs already in place.
The team hopes that unlocking the sequence will ultimately allow cocoa farms, 90 percent of which are small and family operations, to produce three or four times more cocoa than what they usually produce, but on less land surface.
"This way they can have a better use of land space - and could diversify their crops," said Motomayor.
But the real kicker is not only that that the sequence is immediately being made available to the public domain, and that anyone accessing the genome may never patent anything produced by it.
Cacao knowledge 'thousands of years' behind corn, wheat
Known as an “Orphan Crop” by scientists because it grows in regions with less access to scientific resources than annual row crops like corn, wheat and soy, cacao has been the subject of very little research. "We are thousands of years away from the level of corn and wheat information," said Dr. Motomayor.
Not only that, but because the cacao is a perennial crop, the breeding process--whereby, scientists decide which plants to breed together to get the most desirable characteristics--takes years.
“With these tools scientists can work with cacao like they do with wheat and corn," said Motomayor.
The results of the research will be made available to the public in perpetuity via the Cacao Genome Database. Making the genome publicly available will prevent it from being privatized. It will also allow scientists to immediately begin applying the findings to crop cultivation efforts.
"We want everyone to have access to the sequence, to prevent people from patenting the cacao gene," said Motomayor.
Mars said their investment will have a long-term return for the company and for the overall sustainability of the cocoa industry.
Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., Global Director of Plant Science for Mars, said the genome sequencing project may not benefit Mars' bottom line in the short term, "in the long run, it will ensure mutually beneficial results for the company, cocoa farmers and tree crop production in key regions of the world."
Moving forward, researchers plan on continuing to analyze and characterize the cocoa genome in preparation for their findings to be peer-reviewed by a major scientific journal.