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US Company Launches Effort to Save Global Cocoa Crops

Like people around the world, Americans love a good bar of chocolate or anything containing the confection. But climate change and diseases are ravaging cocoa bean crops in many parts of the world, eroding production and raising prices of the essential ingredient used to make chocolate. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, a U.S.-based candy company is teaming up with agricultural researchers to fight the threat.

In the mid-1980s, Brazil was the world's third-largest grower of cocoa beans. That was before the emergence of two strains of fungus that attacked and decimated the country's cacao trees from which cocoa beans are harvested. Today, Brazil is a net importer of cocoa beans, and most of the world's remaining production is centered in African countries like Ivory Coast and Asian nations like Indonesia.

Today, drought threatens cocoa bean production in West Africa. And even though the fungus strains that wiped out Brazil's cacao plantations have yet to migrate beyond the Americas, researchers believe it is only a matter of time before they do so.

Raymond Schnell is a geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working from the agency's subtropical horticulture research facility in Miami, Florida.

"The two [fungal] diseases do not exist in Africa or Asia. And Africa and Asia are the main production areas at this time, not Central and South America anymore. So if the diseases were to move, as diseases tend to do, it would cause major problems in these production areas, because all the material [cocoa beans] being grown in Africa and Asia now is susceptible to these two diseases," explains Schnell.

The solution? Develop cacao trees that are resistant to fungus and that can better withstand drought and other adverse climate conditions. For nearly 10 years, U.S.-based candy giant Mars has helped fund USDA projects to probe cacao's genetic code. Raymond Schnell says sufficient progress has been made to take the project to the next level: the sequencing and analysis of the plant's entire genome.

"What we have now are [genetic] markers that we can use to help us select for these disease-resistance traits. But in order to move the program forward, what we really need to do is have all the sequence information. And Mars has agreed to fund that project, where we are going to sequence the cacao genome," says Schnell.

Mars is contributing $10 million to the project, which is expected to take several years to complete. The resulting genetic data will then be studied for patterns that suggest disease resistant traits that can be employed in cacao breeding programs.

Mars officials are quoted as saying they intend to play an active role that "takes charge of the future" of cocoa bean production, rather than leaving matters to chance. For nations that depend heavily on cocoa crops, as well as chocolate manufacturers and chocolate lovers across the globe, the stakes are high.