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Can GMO's Save Chocolate?

Stashed in: Chocolate!, National Geographic, Food Industry

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Chocolate seems like a good use of GMO technology:

These people aren’t likely to adopt a bean, no matter how prolific, that smacks of acidic dirt.

It may be time to turn to genetic engineering.

The genome of the cacao plant has been sequenced as of 2011 (by two different groups of scientists, one affiliated with Mars–maker of Snickers, Milky Way, and M&Ms, the other with rival Hershey’s). From among chocolate’s approximately 30,000 genes (that is, about 10,000 more than us), scientists have identified gene sequences that govern disease resistance and direct the production of helpful metabolites and flavor components. Molecular biologist Mark Guiltinan of Penn State University believes that such genetic analyses may eventually help produce disease-resistant, high-yield cacao plants.

To date, no GMO cacao has been developed for the field. Despite a host of positive safety studies, there’s tremendous public pressure to avoid genetically modified foods–and perhaps especially in our beloved bars and bonbons. In fact, many chocolate companies are now striving to become GMO-free, often a difficult process since it involves foregoing corn syrup and soy lecithin–both common ingredients of chocolates–that are made from GMO crops. (According to a recent USDA report, “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States,” about 88 percent of American corn and 93 percent of American soybeans are genetically modified.)

Some researchers point out that creating an ideal GMO chocolate isn’t going to be easy. Chocolate is a mind-bogglingly complex food, containing some 600 different flavor components. (Even red wine boasts a mere 200.) Cobbling together the right mix of flavors–along with disease-resistance, a rapid growth rate, and high productivity–may prove to be an heroic task.

Still, given increasing world demand and the cacao tree’s environmentally dicey future, it may be our best chance to save chocolate as we all know and love it.

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