x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Unlocking the sweet genome to preserve chocolate

Genetically modified crops often get a raw deal in the media. In this case however, this technology may keep small farms afloat while improving their product.

Children with a sweet-tooth, broken-hearted teenage girls and Valentine's Day gift card salesmen can rest easy. The future of chocolate is in safe hands.

The cacao tree - from the Mayan word kakaw or "food of the gods" - produces the fruit that provides us with chocolate. But it is in a fickle tree, demanding rich soil, ample rainfall and protection from direct sunlight. In a nutshell, at present the demand far exceeds supply of cocoa which, unlike crops like rice and wheat, is grown on small farms which increasingly struggle to hit their targets.

To the rescue now comes the public release of the complete genome of the cacao tree. The sequencing of the genome was performed through the investment of private firms including Mars and IBM, the US Department of Agriculture and international universities.

The greatest benefit of the new discoveries should be to enable more cocoa to be grown from fewer trees. What's more, in the future chocolate is set be healthier and, tantalisingly for chocoholics, tastier. The genome's relation to disease and drought, and its levels of healthier fats can now be more fully understood and potentially modified.

Genetically modified crops often get a raw deal in the media. In this case however, this technology may keep small farms afloat while improving their product. That should leave a pleasant taste in anyone's mouth.