Cocoa DNA Unravelled

It was only a question of time before it would happen, but on Wednesday, the New York Times (and many other news outlets) announced that two teams of scientists had sequenced the complete DNA chain of the cocoa tree. Most appropriately, the news appeared in the business section, not the science section. The two rival teams, one financed by Mars, the other a collaboration between French government laboratories and the University of Pennsylvania backed by Hershey, were quick to dispel any worries that the DNA sequence would become private property. The information will be freely available. The Mars project can be found at the Cocoa Genome Project website.

Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars’ chief plant research guy, also pointed out that the scientific breakthrough would guarantee sustainable cocoa supplies for the future. The DNA information will be used to breed trees that are no longer susceptible to the many diseases that have ravaged cocoa crops around the world.

Of course, sustainable here means primarily plentiful and cheap cocoa supplies for the chocolate makers. The announcement dutifully paid lip service to supporting small farmers in Africa, but the primary goal is lower prices than those the chocolate makers are paying now. Scientists expect a quintupling of the yield per acre. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that this discovery will create dramatic upheavals for cocoa farmers in Africa and elsewhere.

Increasing the yield as dramatically as predicted will inevitably lead to lower prices. Given that most farmers in West Africa work rather small plots, they are unlikely to increase output enough to make up for the lower prices. The result will be far fewer cocoa farmers with much larger holdings. The fate of those farmers driven off the land remains open. Is that progress?

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