Quality and supplies for the key ingredient in chocolate - cocoa - may gain from a new project that sees Mars link up with the US goverment and IBM to unlock the cocoa genome.
The US confectionery giant will invest $10 million in a five year project to sequence cocoa's double helix: a significant step that could help relieve risk to a cocoa supply chain impacted by shortages, and even produce a better chocolate.
"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, global director of plant science for Mars.
In the past 15 years, cocoa crops have fallen foul to destructive diseases and drought that have seen growers lose some $700 million annually. A domino effect, the hit to supplies continues to push prices up for chocolate makers: in the past year prices have risen by almost 50 per cent on the back of shrinking supplies.
Cocoa prices peaked on 13 March this year, with ICE Futures US cocoa 2nd position seeing prices closing at $2,922 a tonne, "a staggering 39.2 per cent higher on the start of the year", say authors of a recent Fortis report.
Mars, IBM and the US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service anticipate it will take about five years to complete the entire sequencing, assembly, annotation and study of the cocoa genome. The cocoa genome consists of about 400 million base pairs, whereas the human genome is made up of 3 billion base pairs.
Initially scientists from USDA-ARS and Mars will conduct various aspects of the project at the USDA-ARS facility in Miami, aiming to generate the raw DNA of cocoa. For the next step, researchers at US laboratory IBM will analyse the data, and identify patterns in order to develop the genetic map of the cocoa plant.
"From the sequencing of the human genome we can try and understand which variations in the genome will point us towards higher yields and more tolerance," says IBM research scientist Ajay Royyuru.
Clearly, combating cocoa shortages through science and eliminating disease outbreaks has considerable implications for a chocolate manufacturing industry intimately linked to supplies.
But with 70 per cent of the world's cocoa grown in Africa, any progress in locking in higher yields and reducing the vulnerability of the cocoa plant will also have massive implications for the growers.
"These crops may help protect an important social, economic and environmental driver in Africa," say the cocoa genome group in a joint statement on Thursday.
Mars added that it will make its genome research results free and available through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), which supports agricultural innovation for both humanitarian and small-scale commercial purposes.
Compared to major crops such as corn, wheat and rice, cocoa is the subject of just a few genetic research projects. But it is acknowledged that in today's increasingly tight food supply chain, genomic technology could have a major impact in alleviating food shortages around the world.
A group of international scientists recently sequenced the complete rice genome, providing new tools to improve the quality and size of future crops.
Six years of research work conducted by The International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, which includes The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), has found that the completed sequence for the genome consists of around 400 million DNA bases holding 37,544 genes on rice's 12 chromosomes.
The newly discovered sequence should provide a roadmap for agricultural researchers using both technology and conventional farming methods to develop hardier, more resistant strains of rice.
Mars and USDA-ARS have worked together in the past 10 years on research projects related to improving traditional methods of cocoa breeding and reducing the threats to crop yields. Mars and IBM have also worked together on projects in the past, but this is the first project that sees all three establishments linking up together.