Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mars Candy Sequences Chocolate Genome for $10M

Addiction to the beans of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, has been attributed to cultures as ancient as the Mayans and Aztecs, whose leaders guzzled fermentations of them, and used them as currency. Today the cacao tree is responsible for a $13 billion dollar-a-year chocolate industry in the U.S. alone.

However, in the face of climate change and the spread of diseases, chocolate companies are getting jittery about the strength of their cacao tree stocks. Mars Candy, along with IBM and the USDA, hopes to ensure the survival of at least some mutant form of the cacao tree by plunking out $10M to sequence the entire genome of the plant. Howard Yonashapiro, Chief Plant Scientist for Mars Candy, says the sequenced genome will “allow cacao breeders to much more efficiently introduce desired traits and to produce entirely new lines of cacao plants leading to a vast number of farmer benefits.”

So maybe Mars will find pathogen resistance in some form of twinkie-corn and blast that “desired trait” into the cacao seed - allowing their plantations and profits to continue exactly as they are. But what about these "vast number of farmer benefits" they speak of?
Currently, 6.5 Million subsistence cacao tree farmers in South America and Africa, including slaves and children, provide the basis for all chocolate today. The chocolate industry has been booming for decades, with or without GMOs, but apparently those profits haven't been enough to raise the farmers out of poverty. So Mars - how about sending some sugar back to your workers by going fair trade with them? In the meantime, we’ll probably keep looking for more responsible chocolatiers, like Envirovore wrote about here.

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