Published on: 08:30AM Aug 07, 2008
On his fourth voyage across the ocean, Columbus captured a large trading canoe off the coast of what is now Honduras. Among its contents were beans from cacao trees. The explorer seems not to have understood their true significance. He had stumbled upon the key ingredient to chocolate.
A couple of generations would pass before Europeans developed a taste for what was already considered a delicacy among the indigenous people of Central and South America. Today, of course, chocolate has gone global--it’s possibly the most popular flavor in the world.
Chocolate makers would like to keep it that way: Mars, the candy company, recently decided to invest $10 million to unravel the genome of the cacao tree. The motivation behind the five-year project is to develop a hardier crop, using the latest tools of biotechnology.
That makes sense. Biotechnology has revolutionized the ways in which farmers grow food, all for the better. In the United States and elsewhere, we’ve seen how an improved understanding of genetics has boosted yields for corn, cotton, soybean, and canola farmers. Working in conjunction with IBM and the Department of Agriculture, Mars hopes to accomplish something similar for the men and women who nurture cacao trees.
Most of them live in West Africa, which is where about 70 percent of the crop comes from, even though the plant itself is a native of the New World. Around the globe, roughly six million farmers directly depend upon the cacao tree. The vast majority are small-scale growers who pick their beans by hand. They’re extremely vulnerable to the hazards of drought and disease.
So are the 40 to 50 million people whose livelihoods are tied in some way to cocoa production, according to the World Cocoa Foundation. (The words “cacao” and “cocoa” are often used interchangeably. From a technical standpoint, cacao is preferable because it comes from the tree’s scientific name, but cocoa is the Anglicized and more popular term.)
Brazil used to be a leading exporter of cocoa, until a fungus decimated its industry. More recently, African farmers have had to contend with rising temperatures and declining rainfall. Mars has estimated that these challenges cause farmers to lose as much as $800 million each year.
Consumers ultimately foot the bill. In the last year, the cost of cocoa has gone up 50 percent. All kinds of food prices have spiked recently, of course, but most of these increases primarily are the result of an abundant demand rather than a scarce supply. With the cacao tree, it looks like the reverse may be true.
There’s no telling precisely where the science will lead. Yet it almost certainly will produce information that helps this important crop fight off pests and disease as well as improve its use of water and nutrients.
“Mars saw the potential this research holds to help accelerate what farmers have been doing since the beginning of time with traditional breeding, ultimately improving cocoa trees, yielding higher quality cocoa, and increasing income for farmers,” said Howard-Yana Shapiro, the global director of plant science for Mars.
Interestingly, Mars won’t patent the genome sequence. Instead, it will make everything it learns available through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, a non-profit group that works to make technology available to small-scale farmers in developing countries.
Biotechnology is sometimes said to benefit big corporations at the expense of lowly farmers. This is a myth--and one that the Mars project will help to expose.
The survival of cacao-tree farming is essential to everyone with a sweet tooth. Those who can resist the temptations of chocolate also have a stake in this work because it turns out that a little chocolate may be good for you. Cocoa is packed with natural antioxidants. Because of this, eating chocolate--and especially dark chocolate--may be related to improved blood flow and reduced blood pressure.
As with everything, moderation is critical: There’s no avoiding the unfortunate fact that chocolate is also high in fat and calories.
Maybe that’s the conundrum Mars should seek to solve next
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over twenty years. Mr. Horan is a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member.