U.S. Government Teams Up With Private Sector To Stave Off Cocoa Crisis

From NPR Morning Edition March 5, 2015  RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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Chocolate is increasingly popular and under assault from diseases that infect cocoa plants. Scientists are working to find varieties that will resist diseases and keep the world's sweet tooth happy.

The world is facing a chocolate shortage. Demand for chocolate is rising fast, especially in China and India, and the supply of cocoa is declining. In fact, demand is expected to outpace supply within a few years. Now the U.S. government is teaming up with the private sector to try to stave off a cocoa crisis. Stacy Vanek Smith from our Planet Money team has that story.

STACY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: The fate of chocolate might actually rest in Miami at a plant reserve run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Gutierrez, how are you?

OSMAN GUTIERREZ: Nice to meet you.

VANEK SMITH: Very nice to meet you.

Osman Gutierrez heads cocoa research for the USDA.

GUTIERREZ: This is a subtropical horticultural research station of the USDA.

VANEK SMITH: It's beautiful, and there was a peacock in my parking place.

GUTIERREZ: Yes, there's a lot of peacocks here.

VANEK SMITH: Cocoa, or cacao, as Gutierrez calls it, is a tough plant to grow. The trees only thrive in tropical climates, and they are very disease-prone.

GUTIERREZ: We have major diseases in cacao across the world, witches broom, black pod, frosty pod.

VANEK SMITH: Cocoa farmers lose about 80 percent of their crops to witches broom, black pod and frosty pod. So Gutierrez is working with a team of scientists here to try and breed a new kind of cocoa tree that will resist disease and taste really good. But a lot of time goes by between breeding a new cocoa plant and actually being able to taste its cocoa.

How much time goes by?

GUTIERREZ: At least more than 10 years, 10, 11. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Ten years?

GUTIERREZ: Yeah, because even - this is, like - we are trying to speed it up right now.

VANEK SMITH: To that end, the USDA has teamed up with Mars chocolate company. They have a lab here.

GUTIERREZ: So let's go to the lab, and we will show you all the DNA technology that we are using.

VANEK SMITH: Scientist Cecile Tondo uses a hole punch to collect tiny samples of cocoa leaves from all around the world and extract DNA from them.

This is like a cheek swab for a plant?

CECILE TONDO: Yeah, pretty much.

VANEK SMITH: The promising plants are then cloned and grown in Petri dishes. But even with all of this technology, creating a cocoa super-tree is an uphill battle. Juan Carlos Motomayor is a lead scientist at Mars. He says compared to corn or wheat, cocoa is in the dark ages.

JUAN CARLOS MOTOMAYOR: If we compare cacao with many other crops, we are in kind of prehistoric times.

VANEK SMITH: Motomayor says up until recently, there wasn't much investment in cocoa. But now some people are worried that cocoa will see the same fate as corn and trade flavor diversity for productivity.

Is something lost in moving cocoa from an old-fashioned kind of crop to a more modern crop?

MOTOMAYOR: I don't think so.

VANEK SMITH: Motomayor says the important thing is that a super cocoa plant would keep farmers in business. Still, the chances of sending cocoa down the same road as corn are slim, says the USDA's Osman Gutierrez.

GUTIERREZ: Breeding is like gambling, you know. The probabilities are 1 in 1 million, 1 in 10 million.

VANEK SMITH: Gutierrez takes me to the greenhouse near the lab to see some of the new varieties. They're about 3 feet high, lined up in rows on a table. It will be years before he'll be able to taste the cocoa from these trees.

How many kinds are in here?

GUTIERREZ: I don't know. Over a hundred, I guess.

VANEK SMITH: So is the future of chocolate in this room?

GUTIERREZ: Oh, yes. You bet it is. I think it is. This is the future of cacao.

VANEK SMITH: Well, we'll know in a few years anyway. Stacy Vanek Smith, NPR News.

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