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Cacao beans has the highest antioxidant content compared with black tea, green tea, and red wine, according to the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

Cacao’s popularity in more ways than one is due to epicatechins, powerful antioxidants or chemicals that is claimed to cleanse the body of disease-causing chemicals. Cacao beans have the highest antioxidant content compared to black tea, green tea, and red wine, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

That is good tidings for cacao farmers. For them, the right variety to plant is crucial because the cacao tree becomes productive three to five years after planting.

Yet most farmers are in the dark on which variety have the desired traits of disease resistance, good quality, and high yields. The aroma gives a hint as to the quality while the number of good seeds harvested per tree indicates high-yielding characteristics.

High bean quality is one of the traits plant breeders are looking for to improve or create new cacao varieties with the desired characteristics such as pest resistance. That’s because pest infestations and fungal diseases claim more than 40 percent of yields.

What’s slowing the scientists is that conventional breeding takes a long time, especially for perennial crops like cacao. Enter functional genomics that may speed-up the breeding of new varieties. The technology looks for desirable traits written in cacao genes. This way, breeders can fast track the selection process by selecting cacao varieties with attractive genes.

The University of Southern Mindanao (USM) in Kabacan, North Cotabato, with the support of the Department of Science and Technology, is using next-generation sequencing to map cacao genes taken from varieties collected nationwide.

DNA sequencing is indispensable in plant breeding because of the fast way it determines or sequences the precise order of nucleotides within a DNA molecule. Next-generation sequencing can “map” the genes more accurately and efficiently. Now available to Filipino scientists, next-gen sequencing is a lot faster when compared to traditional breeding.

The selection for the best variety of cacao requires enormous agronomic and economic data. In 2015, for a start, different cacao varieties are being grown at the USM Agricultural Research Center where preliminary genetics research will put cacao at the stepping stone towards functional genomics research.

USM scientists will use next-gen sequencing technology to look for the genes of selected high yielding cacao varieties that are resistance to diseases and produce high-quality seeds that promise high yields.

Cacao varietal data and trials from earlier research will help as will the latest genomics technology, all in collaboration with colleagues at the University of the Philippine Los Baños and the Philippine Genome Center in UP Diliman.

Research results may serve as the blueprint for increasing cacao production as scientists begin to understand the genes that are closely related to stress tolerance and disease -resistance. The data may lead to engineering new cacao varieties with the characteristics highly desired by farmers and crop breeders.

After three years, USM scientists are expected to produce a map of the genes from the best cacao varieties. The data will be useful for developing a more superior cacao variety best suited to Philippine conditions.

And that bodes well for cacao farmers, mostly in the Davao region, the country’s largest cacao producer. In 2013, according to the Department of Agriculture, some 9,000 farmers in Davao City, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley raised 2.5 million cacao fruit-bearing trees in over 5,000 hectares, the largest in the country.

The Euromonitor market intelligence estimates that the Philippine chocolate confectionery market had a low and slow growth rate of 3 percent in 2013. However, the local retail market is projected at Php 12.6 billion by the end of 2018.

Farmgate prices for cacao beans averaged Php 63 per kilogram in 2013, down from a recent high of Php 88 in 2011, Philippine Statistics Authority numbers show. In contrast, the International Cocoa Organization’s average daily price for August 2014 was equivalent to nearly Php 150 per kilogram.

Next-gen sequencing, with the promise of higher and better yields, may yet dictate better prices, encourage more farmers to plant the crop and put Philippine cacao up there with the rest of the world.

 

Written by: 
John Aries J. Tabora
University of Southern Mindanao

Published by:
Department of Science and Technology-Science and Technology Information Institute (DOST-STII)

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