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Hannes Dempewolf believes the best way to preserve rare plant varieties is by encouraging their agricultural use - Martin Dee
Hannes Dempewolf believes the best way to preserve rare plant varieties is by encouraging their agricultural use - Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 12 | Dec. 4, 2008

Project Cultivates Ancient Chocolate Delights

By Brian Lin

Profitable gourmet chocolate and biodiversity conservation aren’t mutually exclusive, according to UBC graduate student Hannes Dempewolf.

And the World Bank agrees, to the tune of $200,000.

Dempewolf and other collaborators from UBC and Bioversity International, a non-profit research organization based in Italy, were among 22 winners -- out of 1,800 proposals -- of the 2008 Development Marketplace competition, sponsored in part by the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The theme of this year’s competition encourages creative solutions in agricultural development, and funds pilot projects with the goal of establishing self-sustaining, non-profit organizations in the developing world.

The team proposes developing inexpensive and reliable ways to genetically identify and authenticate varieties of cocoa beans that date back to the ancient Mayan and Aztec times. These beans could produce high quality “boutique flavours” for discerning chocolate connoisseurs and fetch a higher market price. This would encourage farmers to continue to cultivate them.

“Currently, the majority of cocoa farmers around the world grow high-yielding, more pest-resistant varieties called Forastero, resulting in a lack of genetic agro-biodiversity, whereas cocoa plants in Trinidad and Tobago are either the ancient Criollo or a uniquely Trinidadian variety called Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero,” says Dempewolf.

“If we could demonstrate the economic potential of these ancient varieties and offer inexpensive and reliable ways for growers, certifiers and buyers to authenticate them for the market, we could create strong incentives to conserve -- and even increase -- agricultural biodiversity in the region.”

To achieve this, the team proposes authenticating varieties through a part of a plant’s DNA, which is located in chloroplasts -- the structures in which photosynthesis takes place. Unlike in typical chromosomes, the DNA in chloroplasts is inherited only through the maternal line when the plant reproduces, and thus remains more distinct across generations. “They are unique to most varieties, like fingerprints are to humans,” says Dempewolf.

Over the next two years, Dempewolf and his PhD advisors, Quentin Cronk in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems and Loren Rieseberg in the Dept. of Botany, will work with cocoa farmers and experts in Trinidad and Tobago and Italy to create a database of cocoa genetic diversity. They will also develop standardized testing methods for varieties grown in local farms and plantations and in the International Cocoa Genebank, located in St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago.

While preserving rare plant varieties in gene banks is important, Dempewolf says it doesn’t allow for a species to evolve with the changing environment, a point especially poignant with effects of global warming.

“The best way to conserve agricultural biodiversity is through consistent cultivation of different varieties. To accomplish that, we have to make it profitable,” says Dempewolf, who got interested in international development work when he came to UBC several years ago as an international exchange student.

The idea, and the UBC team’s expertise in plant genomics, caught the attention of World Bank President Rober Zoellick when Dempewolf presented the proposal to judges at a sort of “idea marketplace” along with 100 finalists.

“He asked very in-depth questions about the science behind our proposal,” recalls Dempewolf, who was invited to lunch with Zoellick along with representatives from two other winning teams, a rarity according to World Bank staffers.

“We had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discuss our ideas with one of the top economists in the world,” says Dempewolf. “The whole experience was surreal.”

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Last reviewed 03-Dec-2008

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