Mars to Sequence Cocoa Genome

The news outlets today were all in a tizzy about the announcement by Mars, the USDA and IBM of a five year project to sequence and analyze the cocoa genome. Many of these articles started out with the line “To save chocolate lovers from the agony of a potential candy bar shortage …” (Washington Post). Others, like Mars’ global director of plant science Shapiro, invoked the fate of the African cocoa farmers, claiming that the results of the project would bring economic stability to those farmers by making cocoa more pest and disease resistant. So it’s all about doing science in the name of the greater humanitarian good. Oh, and also to keep chocolate lovers happy.

Not a word, though, about keeping the Mars family happy. But this entire project is all about keeping cocoa cheap and plentiful as new consumers in China and India are beginning to discover chocolate. Mars and the other chocolate makers do not like the fact that the anticipated increases in consumption have driven futures prices up to record heights. So the long term strategy is to increase supplies by developing genetically engineered cocoa trees yield more beans faster. According to some reports, the new trees will yield beans in as little as one year to 18 months instead of the usual three to five years.

The fate of  farmers is not the main concern. Yes, cocoa farmers lose up to one third of their crop each year to various pests and diseases. A few years ago, a fungal disease called Witches Broom, wiped out most of Brazil’s cocoa harvest. Farmers in Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire battle “Black Pod” and “Swollen Shoot” every year. So for the individual farmer, cocoa trees that are more resistant to such problems would be wonderful. Imagine being able to sell an additional third of one’s crop. It would be enough to pay the school fees for one or more children.

But was is true for the individual farmer does not necessarily hold true for the collective of all cocoa farmers in one country or the world. I pointed out in an earlier post that Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire produce almost 60% of the world cocoa output. So if all farmers there were to increase their production by 33%, world production would increase by some 700,000 tons. Add 700,000 tons to a total of 3.8 million tons and you will see a significant reduction in the price per ton.

Even if the increased yield does not materialize until some time down the road, the net effect will be the same. Last September, the International Cocoa Organization estimates total world production of cocoa in 2011/12 to amount to about 4.1 million tons and total world grindings (consumption of beans) to reach 4.13 million tons – in other words almost a balance between production and consumption. Adding more cocoa to that equation will not necessarily increase grindings but just depress the price.

The genome project is not the only effort by Mars to increase world supplies in cocoa. For some time now, Mars had supported the SUCCESS Alliance, a project geared towards introducing cocoa to countries where it has not been grown before. Vietnam is probably the most successful example so far. Even the emergence of Sulawesi (Indonesia) as a major cocoa producer in the early 1980s was the result of external inducement in the face of the historically high prices that prevailed in the late 1970s.

Add to this the efforts by the chocolate industry to persuade the FDA to redefine the contents of chocolate to permit higher levels vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter and one gets the complete picture: lower input costs and increase profits.

As to the chocolate lovers mentioned at the beginning, don’t hold your breath.  “Sequencing the cocoa genome is a significant scientific step that will allow more directed breeding of cocoa plants and perhaps even enhance the quality of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate,” said Mars (Reuters UK). So better quality is not even the first goal.

It is not surprise that a company will invest in research that will increase its profits. That’s what corporations do. But they should at least have the decency to call it by its real name rather than dress it up as aid for poor farmers and the environment. Mars is spending $10 million on the project. I wonder if the company spent anywhere near this amount helping reduce child labor on African cocoa farms and supporting kids’ education. But such information is not publically available.

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