November 15, 2010
Researchers working with confectionery giant Mars are scouring the genome of the tree Theobroma cacao to find ways of genetically manipulating cocoa beans produced by the plant.
Scientists took two years to unlock the genetic code of the tree and now hope to use the information it contains to alter the quality, flavor and even the nutritional value of the beans which are used to produce chocolate.
"Chocolate will become something quite different in 10-15-20 years and we are on that track now," stated Dr Howard-Yara Shapiro, global director of plant science and research at Mars Incorporated.
Under the guise of increasing flavonals and the health qualities of chocolate, Shapiro and his team are playing the game of genetic roulette as so eloquently defined by GMO researcher Jeffrey Smith.
"It is not something we can deliver tomorrow, but maybe in five years we can. Having the genome will speed up the process because we will be able to locate which genes are responsible for high levels of flavonols and help us select for those plants," said Shapiro.
In a little over two years they were able to disentangle the 420 million units of DNA that make up the plant and in an unusual move for a private company. (Mars Candy)
Traditional breeding techniques can take years to produce trees with the traits they want as thousands of plants must be bred together and then breeders have to wait for the offspring to grow into adult trees before they can see if they have the required physical traits.
Mars said they initially intended to use natural breeding of the cocoa plants rather than genetic engineering to produce new varieties of trees with boosted traits, but its clear they chose the latter due to the speed generated from genetically modified research.
“Rather than having to wait until those trees grow up over five years or so to look at the physical traits of the trees, we can instead take the DNA from the sapling once it sprouts and find out what traits it has.
"It speeds up that screening process hugely.
“We are still going to have to breed millions of trees and evaluate every single one, but we will very carefully and slowly add traits to the plants that will be sent out to the farmers.
Source: UNCTAD based on the data from International Cocoa Organization, quarterly bulletin of cocoa statistics
Scientific studies on the health benefits of currently available chocolate have provided mixed results and last week the European Food Safety Authority ruled that manufacturers should not be allowed to advertise these health benefits due to the inconsistent evidence
Although cocoa is largely produced in developing countries, it is mostly consumed in industrialized countries. For cocoa, the buyers in the consuming countries are the processors and the chocolate manufacturers. A few multinational companies dominate both processing and chocolate manufacturing.
The United States, Germany and France make up more than half of the world's cocoa consumption with the United States by far the largest consumer. Consequently, should the effects of genetically modified cocoa result in unintended health effects or consequences to consumers, the US population will be the first to exhibit those effects on a mass scale.
Learn more at the Cacao Genome Database website.