Mars Inc., the maker of M&M’s and Snickers bars, can triple yields at Ivory Coast cocoa farms within seven years, said Howard-Yana Shapiro, the company’s global director of plant science and external research.
Farmers produce an average 400 kilograms (882 pounds) of cocoa per hectare (2.47 acres), and “we’re sure we can lift yields to 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms in five to seven years,” Shapiro said in an interview in Geneva this week.
Mars is teaching farmers in Ivory Coast how to better take care of their crops, as well as supplying higher-yielding cacao cultivars that can be grafted on existing root stock, said Shapiro, who was attending a conference on feeding the world in 2050.
Cocoa use is growing 2 percent a year, and Mars is investing in production to secure long-term supply, Shapiro said. World cocoa grinding probably rose 4.1 percent to 3.87 million tons in 2010-11, double the amount processed 25 years ago, data from the International Cocoa Organization show.
“We want to be in business in 50 years,” Shapiro said. “It’s building the supply, not controlling the supply. We buy in the open market.”
McLean, Virginia-based Mars has been buying Ivory Coast cocoa beans for 65 years, Shapiro said, adding yields probably declined over that period.
The company released the preliminary sequence of the cacao genome, or a map of the plant’s genetics, in 2010 together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and International Business Machines Corp.
Based on the work, West African cacao breeders “are releasing new cultures at a breakneck pace,” Shapiro said. “It’s changing the way we think about cocoa production, from the gene to the bean.”
Mars is working with Ivory Coast farmers to replace part of their cacao trees every year, the director said. The food company brought in teams from Indonesia to demonstrate the technique, he said.
The farmers working with Mars are replacing about 15 percent of their stock with the new cultivars per year, Shapiro said, adding plantations typically have about 11,000 trees per hectare.
“By 2020 we’ll have changed 150 million trees, that’s probably about a sixth of trees in Cote d-Ivoire,” Shapiro said, using the coutnry’s local name. “Not every farmer will adapt. The early adopters will get the yield increases.”
Mars is also training farmers on how to use fertilizers, Shapiro said. Nutrients nitrogen and potassium are needed because the soil in West Africa, which didn’t have glaciers and lacked volcanic activity, “is worn out.”
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