The Age of Chocolate

It is one of the most popular flavours in the world and by 2016 chocolate will be a $100 billion dollar industry. Yet, as worldwide demand increases by 2.5 per cent a year, there are genuine fears the industry will fail to cope with growing public hunger for the product. Now, however, new research suggests the source of this cherished confection is much older than ever realised – and may have close relations capable of sustaining our sweet-toothed appetites.

The study conducted by researchers at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), the University of Rosario and the University of the Andes, in Colombia, the University of Miami and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has demonstrated that Theobroma cacao, the species that is the source of chocolate, has been around for 10 million years and evolved as the Andes were being formed.

This is important because, as popularity soars, a key challenge associated with current growing practices is the lack of variety of cultivated material – hybrids and common cocoas often have low tolerance to pests and blights. Diseases such as witches broom (Moniliophthora perniciosa) and frosty pod rot or moniliasis disease (Moniliophthora rorei) are a major problem for the industry. There is also a need to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry by protecting plants from the risks posed by climate change.

As with many crops, the extent of genetic material utilised from native populations is limited. Therefore, information on genetic diversity and related species would be invaluable for improving the quality and quantities of material that could be produced to meet the increasing demand.

Lead author on the international study Dr James Richardson, tropical botanist at RBGE, explained the significance of the findings: “This shows that cacao is remarkably old for a plant species and confirms that there has been adequate time for the evolution of a significant amount of genetic diversity within the species. We hope to highlight the importance of conserving biodiversity so that it can be used to augment and safeguard the agriculture sector. By understanding the diversification processes of chocolate and its relatives we can contribute to the development of the industry and demonstrate that this truly is the Age of Chocolate”.

Click here to read the full published paper.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)