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St. Louis startup partners with Mars Inc. to protect cacao trees from climate change

Ag tech firm Benson Hill and Mars Inc. team up to save chocolate production by breeding stronger variety of cacao trees.
Benson Hill

Rising temperatures in tropical forests along the equator are threatening cacao trees -— the source of beans used in making chocolate. Benson Hill, a St. Louis-based agricultural technology company is partnering with the world’s leading candy manufacturer, Mars Inc., to research the genome of the cacao tree. The goal is to improve the productivity and climate resiliency of the cacao crop.

Benson Hill has developed a technology platform that combines machine learning and big data with genome editing and plant biology to accelerate plant development. Founder and CEO Matt Crisp said cacao farmers and consumers stand to benefit from his company’s collaboration with Mars.

“Our crop operating system computation platform allows us to look at the natural genetic diversity of plants like cacao and understand how to make them more resilient to climate change and disease.”

Cacao trees are cultivated in tropical regions along the equator in South America, West Africa and Asia where rising temperatures and limited water supplies challenge local farmers.

“We want to enable farmers to produce more cocoa from less land,” said Howard Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars.

“Mars has invested in cacao breeding for over 20 years,” said Ray Schnell, plant science discipline leader of corporate innovation, at the company that manufactures popular brands such as M&M’s, Snickers, Twix and Milky Way.

Mars has sequenced the genome of important parental lines of cacao according to Schnell. He said with the Benson Hill technology, they will be able to “significantly accelerate the cacao cultivar development program, which will benefit cacao breeders and farmers globally.”

The majority of the world’s cacao beans, 70 percent, come from West Africa where the average farm is seven to 10 acres in size according to NCA, the National Confectioners Association.

A cacao tree grows in St. Louis

Standing in front of the single example of a cacao tree inside the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Climatron, Jim Miller explained how the fruit or pods of the cacao tree grow directly out of the trunk and branches. The tree was covered with young pods that thrive in the heat and humidity under the canopy of taller trees in a tropical forest.

Miller, is a biologist and a senior vice president for science and conservation at the Garden. He said if scientists can can identify specific genes that carry traits for disease or drought resistance, they could fortify the next generation of the cacao species.

“If you’re talking about the kinds of diseases that are devastating cacao plantations in the world,” Miller said, “using genetic modification to produce disease resistant plants is going to be the only way we’re going to be able to sustain chocolate production.”

For now, the voracious American appetite for chocolate may pose the biggest risk to the global supply of cacao.

U.S. consumers are expected to buy 90 million pounds of chocolate candy during the week leading up to Halloween. And here's the scary part: Halloween ranks in fourth place behind Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Easter for biggest chocolate sales.

Chocolate Facts

  • Americans consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate each year, or more than 11 pounds a person.
  • It takes 400 cocoa beans to make one pound of chocolate.
  • Each cacao tree produces approximately 2,500 beans.
  • There are an estimated 1.5 million cocoa farms in West Africa.
  • Cocoa is harvested by hand, on small, family-owned farms.
  • Cacao trees can live 100 years, but produce marketable cocoa beans for only the first 25 years.
  • Cote d’Ivoire is the single largest producer of cocoa, providing roughly 40% of the world’s supply.

source: Candy USA  

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