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Chocolate genetics

Hershey and Mars are engaged in a battle to unlock the genetic secrets of the cacao tree.

French and American scientists, funded in part by Hershey, recently published the DNA sequence of Criollo, a cacao tree that is one of the oldest domesticated trees in the world, dating back to Mayan farmers in 1,000 BC.

While Criollo is an ancient crop, it is not grown much nowadays because it is not as productive as more modern hybrids and is more susceptible to disease. It is, however, still considered to produce some of the world’s finest chocolate.

The announcement follows the September publication of the DNA sequence of a different cacao tree, financed in part by Mars.

Mark Guiltinan of Pennsylvania State University, a co-author of the Hershey-funded study, said currently less than five per cent of cocoa is devoted to quality cocoa. Both candy makers say they are hoping for trees that will produce quality chocolate, in large quantities, and be resistant to pests.

I have mixed feelings.

It is heartening to hear a giant food producer talking about quality, largely because it is something you rarely hear. But for that same reason I am suspicious. Is this about producing a higher quality of chocolate, or is it about the better understanding of high yields and pest resistance?

Will we really get better chocolate out of this, or will Hershey and Mars determine ways to produce more cheap chocolate?

I presume the chocolate giants are hedging their bets with this research, and as usual the market will decide at the end of the day whether we get better or more abundant chocolate.

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