Some exciting news today from Mars, the giant candy maker: The company is going to spend $10 million to decode the genome of the cacao tree. The goal is to guarantee the company a long-term supply of chocolate, improve the livelihood farmers and help preserve the environment in the tropics where cacao trees grow.
“This is the dream of a lifetime for a plant breeder,” Howard Yana-Shapiro of Mars told me, over the phone from Rome, where he is attending a meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization. “And especially for someone who’s interested in sustainability.”
Howard spoke at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm: Green conference in April. If you were there, you noticed him—he was the friendly guy with the long white beard that stretched down to his belly. He’s a fascinating and accomplished man – he’s worked on crops all over the developing world, written books about gardening, taught at a university and was vice president of agriculture for the organize seed and food company Seeds of Change when it was acquired by Mars. Twice a Fulbright Scholar, twice a Ford Foundation Fellow, Howard is also an organic farmer, on land in New Mexico that was first farmed by the Tewa, then by Spanish conquistadors, and has been cultivated continuously for over 3000 years.
The Washington Post had a good story this morning about the Mars chocolate genome project. Essentially, the company will work with IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sequence and analyze the cocoa genome, after which all of the information it gathers will be made public. That should set off a global effort among plant breeders to figure out how to make trees that are more productive, that resist disease or drought, require less water, or can grow on less land—ushering in a revolution in the world of chocolate. It’s an open-source approach to making farming more sustainable, the Mozilla of chocolate.
“We need the biggest toolbox possible so that plant breeders everywhere can go to work on behalf of cocoa farmers,” Howard says. “We are unique as a corporation, as a private company, because we can think far into the future.” The project will take at least five years to complete, and years after that to pay off for farmers. “We’re talking about cocoa trees that can last 25 to 40 years,” he said.
If all goes well, cacao farmers will need less land and have to spend less money to grow their cash crop. Their trees will be robust. They can use the rest of the land to grow fruit or nuts for their family, or to grow trees for timber or even to leave forests alone so they can sequester carbon. About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa.
This is, in other words, exactly the kind of big thinking we need to make global agriculture more sustainable.
I also chatted briefly with Ajay Royyuru, senior manager of IBM’s Computational Biology Center. IBM will lend its brainpower and computer power to the project, after Mars’ scientists map out cocoa’s DNA. “Our role is taking the information and breathing meaning into it,” Royyuru says. Here’s an IBM website about computational biology & medical informations that explains what they do better than I can. Interestingly, the cocoa project dovetails with IBM’s broader efforts to plant a stake in Africa, which I wrote a column about last December. (The more I learn about IBM, the more impressed I am by the company’s values.)
Mars is a famously private company, but they seem to be opening up a little. I’m hoping to meet Howard next week at the company’s unassuming headquarters in McLean, Va., to learn more about his work on cocoa and write a column for cnnmoney.com.