It is one of the oldest foods and is the subject of ancient texts and myths. One of the top ten most traded commodities in the world, this plant is a huge part of the economies of countries ranging from Cote d’Ivoire to Ecuador to Papau New Guinea. The finished product props up some of the world’s best known brands, and it exudes luxury while also contributing to a brutal way of life for some of the world’s poorest people—including hundreds of thousands of children. The cacao tree is also the subject of science, from botanists, agronomists, and now, geneticists.
Now scientists have decoded 92% of the cacao tree’s genome. Funded by MARS with the support of the US Department of Agriculture, IBM, and several universities, the Cacao Genome Database project is three years ahead of schedule. With the sequenced genotype, Matina 1-6, the project promises to solve such problems as pests and diseases that often plague cacao farmers, and in the long run, could improve both the production and sustainability of the cacao industry.
With this genome sequencing, cacao will join other commodities including rice, corn, and wheat, all of which have already gone through the process. Promises are aplenty: improved crop yields, heartier cacao beans, and improved production within the entire supply chain from farmers to chocolatiers. The project also tackles the long term sustainability of what some would call big chocolate: the demands of giants including Hershey, MARS, Cadbury, Nestle, Kraft, and Lindt. Over the past quarter-century, the growing global appetite for cacao has caused its global production to double, but the increase has come through more land use, not improved yields.
So will we all nosh on Matina Bars or Matina Kisses in the near future? It definitely could boost demand for organic and fair trade chocolate brands, as plenty of customers will add chocolate to the “non-GMO” shopping list. Large cacao farming operations stand to benefit as well. The environment possibly could be a winner, with a reduction in the use of pesticides and other chemicals. Plenty of long term questions, however, remain. Will less common varietals of cacao trees survive? What about smaller farmers, who could find themselves squeezed by the price of coveted pods and seedlings?
Or is this just the reality farmers, producers, and consumers must face in order for an industry to survive? The global cacao industry lost $US700 million the past 15 years from a trio of fungal diseases alone. Such losses do not only affect the bottom line of companies like Nestle & Hershey: the livelihoods of many people who have limited economic opportunities may hang in the balance as well.