Safeguarding the World's Chocolate Supply

Cacao Tree Image Link

hide captionWhere chocolate begins: the cacao tree.

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Mars, the maker of M&Ms, is teaming with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and IBM to make chocolate give up its secrets. They're spending more than $10 million in an effort to sequence the genome of the cacao plant — from which chocolate is made.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And one of the world's biggest chocolate makers, Mars, plans to sequence the genome of the tree that produces the raw ingredient for chocolate. NPR's Joanne Silberner has more.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Chocolate manufacturers depend for the raw materials on six and a half million subsistence farmers in Africa and the Americas. And these farmers' cacao plants are increasingly threatened by diseases, pests and now climate change. For example, a fungus has nearly destroyed the cocoa industry in Brazil.

Breeding varieties that can withstand problems like this has been mostly hit or miss. Knowing the full genetic makeup of cacao will transform the process, says Howard Yana-Shapiro. He's chief of plant sciences for Mars.

Mr. HOWARD YANA-SHAPIRO (Chief of Plant Sciences, Mars): The cocoa genome sequence information will enable cocoa breeders to much more efficiently introduce desired traits and to produce entirely new lines of cocoa plants leading to a vast number of farmer benefits.

SILBERNER: Mars is spending more than $10 million on the project in collaboration with the USDA and IBM. They'll make the genetic sequence available to anyone, including Hershey's, says Shapiro.

Mr. SHAPIRO: This action generates the best opportunity, the best chance, for new lines of cocoa to be bred that answer the problems that we have today.

SILBERNER: And breeders will also be able to focus on the genes that give fine cocoa its special flavor.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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