Scary, isn’t it?
As the global director of plant science for Mars, Howard-Yana Shapiro is paid to worry about such things. Threats to cacao trees, the source of world’s chocolate supply, are serious business for the world’s biggest candy company. “This is a crop we depend on. It’s the heart and soul of our business,” Shapiro says. More than candy is at stake: About 6.5 million small-scale farmers, most in west Africa, depend on cacao trees for their livelihood.
So a little more than two years ago, Shapiro persuaded executives at Mars to commit $10 million to a five-year project to decode the cacao genome, in an effort to develop trees that resist drought and disease, as well as more productive trees. Today, three years ahead of schedule, Mars and an array of partners released the “Theobroma cacao Matina1-6” genome sequence at the Cacao Genome Project website. A rival group organized by chocolate-maker Hershey and Penn State says that it, too, has decoded the genome, according to The New York Times, and will make its data available after peer review.
I met the other day with Howard, who’s a fascinating character, to talk about the Mars-backed genome project. He lavished credit on his partners, which include IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center (“They have more computer power than God”), researchers at at Indiana, Clemson and Washington State universities (“They’re all at the top of their game”) and the officials at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Miami who study subtropical plants. While no cacao is grown in the U.S., the government wants to assure a steady supply of chocolate to the $17 billion U.S. chocolate industry. Besides, lots of U.S. farmers grow peanuts and without chocolate, demand for their crops would fall off.
There’s reason to worry about the future of chocolate because cacao trees have been shown to be susceptible to disease. Most notably, a fungus knon as witches’ broom devastated the industry in Brazil, a top exporter of cacao, about 20 years ago. “In 24 months, Brazil became an importer,” he said.
Yet cacao is known as an orphan crop because the countries that now produce most of the world’s cacao–Ghana, Ivory Coast and Indonesia–can’t afford to do expensive research. Nor can the growers, even working together, because the typical grower earns less than $5,000 a year. “They’re on the margins,” he said.
Thanks to Shapiro, Mars has adopted this “orphan crop.” Twice a Fulbright Scholar, twice a Ford Foundation Fellow, Shapiro, who is in his early 60s, has been an organic farmer, a university professor and an author of books about gardening as well as the co-editor and co-author of the definitive book about chocolate, a 1,064-page tome called Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. He was vice president of agriculture for the organic seed and food company Seeds of Change when it was acquired by Mars in 1997, and joined the McLean, Va.-based firm soon after.
Decoding the genome, Shapiro told me, was “the dream of a lifetime for a plant breeder,” as well as for a lover of dark chocolate who enjoys discovering small producers in countries of origin. “That said, Dove Dark is as good as it gets,” he added.
Mars has chosen to make the research results free and accessible through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, a nonprofit group. This is in contrast for agribusiness giants, notably Monsanto, who have sought to control intellectual property around plant breeding, arguing that they need to make a return on the investments they plow into research.
The open-source approach will speed progress, Shapiro said: “Our goal is to take the information of the genome, and explode the productivity of cacao farmers.” As better trees are bred, they will be distributed to farmers by ministries of agriculture in countries where cacao is grown.
The goal of the effort is “a more perfect tree,” he told me, which can mean several things. Trees can become better able to resist disease. They can become more efficient in the way they use nutrients and water, a big issue as climate change has impacts on Africa. They can become more productive. “Right now, about 30% of the trees produce 70% of the cacao,” he said. Breeding can also lead to chocolate with better flavor or even more nutritious.
If the trees, in fact, get stronger and more productive, Mars will eventually enjoy a healthy return on its $10 million investment. Cacao prices have been rising sharply since 2007, as this chart from the International Cocoa Organization shows. Demand for chocolate is rising, too, and it could explode if the Chinese take a more of a liking to chocolate. (Mars’ Dove bar is the top-selling chocolate bar in China.) So more supply will be needed if chocolate is to remain an affordable luxury.
Says Shapiro: “Mars, as an agricultural company, can either be a leader, or you can put your fate in the hands of other people.”