When we reach for that second chocolate chip cookie or place that Hershey’s bar in our shopping cart, we seldom think about the process or the origins of where these sweet foods come from. Chocolate owes its existence to the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) which is predominately grown in West Africa. In fact, 70% of the world’s production of cocoa
comes from here (O’Brien 2010). Cacao trees produce cacao pods, which are carefully cultivated and cut from the trees without damaging the integrity of neither the pod nor the trunk. From these pods, we derive the cacao beans, which are further processed to become a variety of cocoa products. But while we largely categorize chocolate products as heavily processed and essentially artificial foods, it is important to acknowledge that chocolate comes from agricultural origins.
Just like any other plant or living organism, the cacao tree is susceptible to disease. It has been estimated that fungal diseases can “wipe out up to 80 percent of the cacao crop, and cause an estimated $700 million in losses each year” (O’Brien). This is obviously a major problem since much of the world depends on these trees to satisfy consumer demand for chocolate goods. So, in efforts to attack this problem, Mars, USDA-ARS, IBM, NCGR, Clemson University, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Indiana University and Washington State University came together on the Cacao Genome Project.
The goal of the Cacao Genome Project was essentially to sequence the DNA of the
cacao tree so as to “provide researchers with access to the latest genomic tools, enabling more efficient research and accelerating the breeding process, thereby expediting the release of superior cacao cultivars” (Cacao Genome Database). The preliminary release of the genomic sequencing in 2010 included 92% of the genome, with more work to be done. The Cacao Genome Database has made this information available to the public so as to provide people with the building blocks to conduct their own research as to how the
genome can be utilized to advance the health and growth of the cacao trees. Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, head of plant research at Mars, says they wished to make the information available without “intellectual property restrictions” (Pollack 2010). In terms of the Cacao Genome Project, this seems to be a case of “a little more knowledge never hurt.” This new found information opens doors to help “identify traits of disease resistance, enhanced yield, efficiency in water and nutrient use, as well as climate change adaptability among the world’s cacao trees” (Mars). With greater and more efficient production, Mars will have a larger access to cacao at lower prices. And since this information has been made public, a monopoly of the benefits of the genome sequencing is avoided so that everyone benefits.
At the time of the genome’s release in 2010, the worldwide demand for cacao exceeded production (O’Brien). With further research and the application of the already discovered information, we theoretically already hold the pieces to erasing this problem on the global scale. But perhaps more importantly, the implications these scientific discoveries have on the micro scale of the families whose lives depend on the cultivation of cacao will be of great benefit to their overall standard of living. More advanced methods and strains of cacao will yield greater profit for cacao farmers and remove much of the volatility of agricultural production, hypothetically helping to greatly reduce the likelihood of devastating losses.
The communal approach to bettering the cacao situation as a whole is something to be applauded. The scientific advancement of what is known about cacao will ultimately advance the lives of all those connected the production and consequently the consumption of chocolate, a food that has become an essential staple in the diets of modern culture.
“Cacao Genome Database.” Welcome to the Cacao Genome Project. Cacao Genome Project, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
“Innovate With Mars | Case Studies | Cocoa Genome Project | Mars.” Science and Innovation. Mars, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
O’Brien, Dennis. “Related Topics.” Sequencing of Cacao Genome Will Help U.S. Chocolate Industry, Subsistence Farmers in Tropical Regions. USDA, 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Pollack, Andrew. “Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa’s DNA.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.