The world loves chocolate. But keeping pace with global cravings can be a tall order for chocolate producers — a challenge made even tougher as climate change and disease threaten the world’s cocoa supply.
The threat has prompted major industry players like the candy bar giant, Mars — maker of Snickers, M&M’s and Dove bars — to find a solution in biotechnology.
This month, the company announced that it hired Benson Hill Biosystems, a biotech firm based in Creve Coeur, Mo., to outfit it with computing tools to help develop more resilient cacao trees, which produce the beans used to make chocolate.
“Cacao is a pretty fragile crop, increasingly affected by climate change and disease pressure,” said Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars. “Forty percent of the crop is lost each year due to fungal, viral and pest problems. This is a huge problem for manufacturers like Mars.”
The hotter and wetter it is, the more susceptible plants are to disease, said Matt Crisp, Benson Hill’s president and CEO.
For an undisclosed price, Benson Hill will equip the company’s cacao experts — who have bred the plant for 20 years — with a software platform that uses data on plant genetics and traits to speed up and streamline the breeding process.
“We can use Benson Hill’s CropOS analytics engine to understand how we can more rapidly tap into that genetic diversity and find lines of genetic variance that make that plant less susceptible to these types of conditions,” Crisp said.
Developed by Benson Hill over the past 2½ years, the computational breeding technique uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to couple plants’ genomic information with records of their physical traits, often gleaned through years of observations and field studies.
The approach can shave years off the development process, while also narrowing the plant breeding options that companies like Mars have to weigh for field trials.
“Cocoa is one of the top 10 commodities traded globally and yet it lags behind other crops in terms of scientific research,” Shapiro said.