Monday 17 June 2024
  • La Cimbali

Mars is helping create a future-proof chocolate

Cocoa is extremely fragile. It’s susceptible to pests and disease; it takes approximately seven years to fully mature; and while each tree produces hundreds of blooms, just ten percent of them turn into the pods carrying the cocoa seeds that end up in your favorite chocolate bars

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DAVIS, California – Behind the scenes at the Mars research facility co-located at the University of California, Davis, Mars researchers are creating a more productive, resilient and sustainable cocoa plant. Cocoa is the main ingredient in some of our favorite treats on earth, but as a crop it faces a great number of challenges. “There’s no guarantee that our chocolate source is going to be unlimited,” warns Ashley Duval, Senior Scientist, Mars Science & Technology team.

In collaboration with University of California, Davis, the Mars Science & Technology team has been hard at work trying to change that. For the past 40 years, they have developed groundbreaking science to produce a cocoa plant that delivers on the promise of Cocoa For Generations, their vision for a cocoa supply chain where human rights are respected, the environment is protected and everyone, especially cocoa farmers, has the opportunity to thrive.

Achieving this vision relies on the resilience of the cocoa plant.

Cocoa is extremely fragile. It’s susceptible to pests and disease; it takes approximately seven years to fully mature; and while each tree produces hundreds of blooms, just ten percent of them turn into the pods carrying the cocoa seeds that end up in your favorite chocolate bars.

For the approximately 350,000 cocoa farmers in the company’s supply chain, that simply isn’t enough. Such low yields affect prices and directly impact farmers’ livelihoods. “Every single thing we can do to nudge that productivity up, allows us to not only create thriving structures and income for our farmers, but also create a thriving planet,” says Amanda Davis, Chief Procurement and Sustainability Officer at Mars Wrigley.

So, how is this collaboration between UC Davis researchers and the Mars Science & Technology team growing the cocoa plant of the future? With the help of a team of scientists and enthusiastic graduate students who have grown specimens that represent over 80% of the global genetic diversity of cocoa.

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Inside a complex of campus greenhouses, team members are studying the cocoa plant and identifying variants that can stand up to the rigors of the outside world. It’s about identifying the right plant for the right environment.

Essentially, cocoa grows in just one, quite tropical, climate. Compared to the apple, which has dozens of varieties that can thrive in almost any climate, “cocoa right now is where the apple was in 1914,” says Joanna Hwu, Senior Director of Cocoa Plant Science and Operations.

That’s why the team is focused on future generations of cocoa. While its natural habitat is facing the long-term effects of climate change, a more resilient crop could help cocoa farmers yield more from the plants that they already grow, the majority of which are on small, family-owned plots.

For Chris Rowe, Global VP of R&D, Mars Wrigley, raising farmers’ income while growing more sustainable cocoa stands to benefit both people and the planet. “From a climate standpoint, the science going on here is going to completely transform the impact that cocoa has on the climate. We’re helping farmers really be able to sustain their livelihoods through the work that we’re doing.”

“Everything below ground gets overlooked a lot, but it’s incredibly important,” says Jennifer Schmidt, Associate Scientist in the Plant Microbiome. “When we’re thinking about climate resilient cocoa, we can screen different plants and figure out which have the root architecture needed to use water and fertilizer efficiently.”

While these markers are a key factor in the sustainable cocoa equation, pests and viruses remain a problematic variable. To mitigate their effect, the team has developed a test kit in cooperation with Swiss DeCode that can detect a virus in an asymptomatic plant in as little as 60 minutes, helping a farmer take early action to stop the spread.

These quick diagnoses can not only help prevent disease, but also deforestation that often happens in the wake of infected cocoa. “We know that farmers have had farms infected, abandoned them and then gone to new areas with forests and cut down the trees to plant new cocoa,” says Jean-Philippe Marelli, Senior Director of Integrated Pest Management. “We need to solve this issue if we want to have cocoa for the future.”

“We have a real responsibility to do this, helping smallholder farmers increase their yields, their knowledge of pests and disease, make a living income and help the whole diversity of their community, and build a sustainable supply chain for the future,” says Mars Wrigley Global President, Andrew Clarke.

This relationship between UC Davis and the Mars Science & Technology team is proof that collaboration can produce powerful results.

CIMBALI

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