The project, a major five-year initiative, is being jointly funded by the industry body Cocoa Research UK and the government of the Netherlands, a nation with one of Europe's strongest cocoa processing traditions.
The €1.4m grant will be used to study how the cocoa plant's genes are influenced by the environment or by disease, with an aim of developing a form of predictive science which could help growers in the face of possible threats to the crop.
"Ideally we would be able to take a leaf from a plant and use it to understand whether that plant will have a good yield, whether it is over or under watered, or whether it is suffering from a disease for which it has not yet shown any symptoms," said Mike Wilkinson, professor of plant genetics at Reading University.
"Cocoa is a commodity crop. People in the business like to know what yields are likely to be, and so far the only way of knowing that is by counting the pods. We hope to be able to improve on that," he added.
The ultimate goal would be to ensure a continuous supply of cocoa, something that could result in less price fluctuations.
However, Bob Eagle, secretary of Cocoa Research UK, said regulating cocoa prices was not a direct aim.
"Prices are only partly determined by crop yield and quality, which is often affected by disease or climate change. We can try to deal with these by improving our level of basic understanding, but prices are also determined by politics, which we can do nothing about," said Eagle.
The research has as its core an understanding of the way cocoa plant genes react in order to cope with certain stresses. This would allow precautionary measures to be taken in order to offset the negative effects of these.
"We hope to be able to identify where a tree is susceptible to change, and where it can't cope. Then we either advise growers how to keep the environment within the limits that the plant likes to be in, or we target breeding in order to produce more resistant varieties," Professor Wilkinson told ConfectioneryNews.com.
He stressed that breeding would not be genetically modified, but "working with what the tree already has."