So far, one food crop that has proved resistant to genetic engineering is cacao. However, that may change as a result of a new study, funded by Mars, Inc., to completely analyze the more than 400 million base pairs in the cacao genome. (The human genome has about three billion base pairs.)
The reasons given for undertaking this research effort, which Mars is funding to the tune of more than $10 million, are to help identify traits that make cacao trees susceptible to the entire range of diseases, pests, and environmental stresses such as drought. Oh, and maybe even find some genes that contribute to taste.
Why Research The Cacao Genome?
While only a very small amount of cacao is grown in the US (currently only a few tens of tonnes, all on various Hawaiian islands), one reason for undertaking the study is that for every dollar of cocoa imported into the US, between one and two dollars of domestic agricultural products are used in the production of chocolate products. Mars, for example, is the nation's largest purchaser of whole peanuts, as well as a major buyer of milk products and sweeteners.
There are even more reasons to undertake the research. More than six million cacao farmers and their families around the globe stand to benefit from disease-resistant, higher-yielding—and hopefully better tasting—strains of cacao. It is estimated that between 25 and 40 percent of the world's annual cacao crop is unharvestable due to the fungal diseases and pests that attack cacao. With the demand for cacao expected to grow by 50 percent over the next decade, the only realistic way to meet that demand is by improving the productivity of existing farms. Higher-yielding varieties, coupled with instruction in orchard management techniques, helps farmers because they can double or even triple their crop without increasing the amount of land planted in cacao.
Increase Quality, Decrease Growing Time
Perhaps the most important question facing the chocolate industry, cacao farmers, and chocolate lovers is how this genomic information is going to be used.
The "easy" way would be to use the data to create new cacao varieties in the lab through gene-splicing techniques. I hope I can speak for all of us when I say that this would be the wrong way to use the data.
The "right" way to use the data (and the one that thankfully appears to be the consensus of the people and companies involved in the sequencing) is to make traditional cross-breeding techniques more effective by being able to concentrate on only the most promising crosses. It is estimated that computational biology algorithms running on world-class supercomputers can accelerate the pace that new strains of cacao trees emerge from breeders' greenhouses to as few as 18 months or so, which is significantly less than the 60 to 72 months that existing breeding techniques require.
All this effort can't come a moment too soon. It is estimated that the sequencing effort will take five years—at which point the breeding experiments can begin in earnest. Several generations of crosses may be needed before promising strains are identified, and then these must be propagated in large quantities, delivered to farmers, and then planted. At this point it will take three to five years before the trees start yielding fully.
Improving Cacao Quality in the Meantime
In the meantime, it is important for the industry, farmers, and chocolate lovers around the world to continue to explore and promote alternative methods for increasing crop yields. The most promising alternatives so far appear to be farmer field schools funded by companies and by NGOs such as the World Cocoa Foundation. Ironically, one influential potential partner in these efforts is completely missing in action: so-called "fair trade" and similar certification organizations. These certifications focus on working conditions for farmers and ensuring that a "fair" price gets paid for their efforts. The certification standards completely ignore the connection between improved quality and premium pricing. One thing educated consumers can do is to start demanding that certification programs start emphasizing improving quality and that farmers receive training in return for the certification fees that the certified co-ops they belong to pay.
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