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Mars cocoa genome research no Monsanto GM moment

By Oliver Nieburg+

10-Jun-2013

Mars has potentially cracked the code to securing the future of the cocoa crop. Photo credit (cocoa chromosome):Nature Genetics
Mars has potentially cracked the code to securing the future of the cocoa crop. Photo credit (cocoa chromosome):Nature Genetics

Mars' cocoa genome research has the potential to avert a cocoa crisis and could benefit farmers in the developing world – it is no GM scandal.

Last week, Mars and its collaboration partners publicly released the genetic markers for the world’s most commonly cultivated cacao plant. The research has been touted to boost yields 500% and create better-tasting chocolate.

Traditional breeding; no gene splicing

Some voiced concerns that this was chocolate’s ‘Monsanto moment’ and would use gene splicing that could potentially cause malformations leading to destruction of the cocoa crop.

However, Mars plans only to use the markers in conjunction with traditional breeding methods. This means planting trees with desirable traits in a field in the vicinity of others with desirable traits that will eventually create high-yielding, disease-resistant clones in seven to eight years.

This is opposed to reproducing cacoa plants in tissue cultures then selecting the best characteristics to genetically engineer new plants.

Juan Carlos Motamayor, program manager on genomics and genetics told this site: “Mars Chocolate’s breeding program is using traditional breeding methods only – there is no genetic manipulation of the cocoa genome taking place by the researchers at Mars.”

“Although Mars is using sophisticated analysis tools, all of our breeding efforts are conducted using traditional crosses. So really, although molecular analyses are powerful, they are simply being used to track the presence of genes that regulate those important traits, in a traditional (crosses) breeding context.”

Benefit to farmers

Andrew Pederson, global chocolate manager for Mars, said that farmers stood to gain.

“The aim of this research is to ensure that the five to six million smallholder cocoa farmers around the world have more productive cocoa trees and better planting material, thus ensuring that they and their farms can be more productive.””

The majority of cocoa farming takes place in the developing world with the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia, the three largest growers.

Mars is anticipating that the genetic markers will allow farmers to grow cocoa using less space, enabling them to cultivate other crops to increase their income.

The company has chosen to utilize the markers in Ecuador, but could extend breeding programs to other regions.

One potential concern is that since so few understand the science, those companies that do could ‘play God’ in where they choose to implement programs.

Companies may select locations based on business interests, concentrating cocoa growing in one or two regions at the expense of smallholder farmers in other areas, who would be unable to compete with defect-free super trees. But with the programs in their infancy, such speculation remains purely theoretical at this stage of play.

Preventing a cocoa shortage?

Nevertheless, the research couldn’t have been timelier for the industry. Demand for cocoa is forecast to outstrip supply for a consecutive year in 2013/14, according to Rabobank, as Asia’s appetite for chocolate grows. Mars and Blommer Chocolate predict the deficit will climb further to 1m metric tons by 2020.

Mars’ genetic markers are expected to increase Matina tree cocoa yields from 0.5 MT to 3 to 3.5 tons per hectare. It will take seven to eight years to create these 500% higher yielding clones, but this is far quicker than conventional breeding (12-18 years) because Mars already has the “winning combinations”.

It may be far-fetched to say the markers could prevent a cocoa deficit, but they may help ease price hikes on the horizon.

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