CREVE COEUR, Mo. — 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 – which makes Snickers, M&Ms and Dove chocolate, among other products – to find a solution in biotechnology.

This month, the company announced that it had hired Benson Hill Biosystems, a Creve Coeur-based biotech firm, 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 Shapiro, the 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.”

“If it’s hotter and it’s more moist, there are vectors for disease that can thrive more in that environment,” said Matt Crisp, Benson Hill’s president and CEO.

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.”

“We’ve got to get deliberate about tapping into that natural genetic diversity, or we’re just going to keep hearing about these stories over and over and over again. Crisp said. “The ‘this disease is going to decimate that crop.’ And the storyline is just going to keep playing.”

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