Government scientists are launching a five-year project Thursday aimed at safeguarding the world's chocolate supply by dissecting the genome of the cocoa bean.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture team based in Miami, funded with more than $10 million from Mars Inc., will analyze the more than 400 million parts of the cocoa genome, a process that could help battle crippling crop diseases and even lead to better-tasting chocolate.
Fungal diseases cost cocoa farmers an estimated $700 million annually. The analysis will not only identify what traits make cacao trees susceptible, but it will allow scientists — and candymakers — to better understand every aspect of cocoa, from its ability to sustain drought to the way it tastes.
"Once we have the whole genome, they'll be able to go in and look at all the genes they're interested in," said Ray Schnell, a research geneticist with the USDA, referring to candymakers.
"The research would lead to larger overall cocoa crops. He said higher yields would allow farmers to devote some of their land to other lucrative crops that could boost their paychecks.
Virtually no cocoa is produced in the U.S., but the USDA has an interest in the crop because so many domestically produced items (raisins and almonds, for example) are important to chocolate.