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Cocoa ‘fingerprint’ could trace chocolate back to farm

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University of Surrey researchers have identified how biotechnology could be applied to the chocolate supply chain to help cocoa farmers get a better deal for their beans.

The £61bn chocolate industry continues to grapple with shocking and unethical farming practices. Some 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa, particularly Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, where efforts to put an end to the exploitation of the millions of children involved in cocoa farming have been largely fruitless. A significant fraction of these child labourers are thought to be victims of trafficking or slavery.

The volatile price of cocoa in recent years has led to a surge in suppliers seeking to buy cheaper beans. These often come from deforested regions with lower-quality plants and evidence of human rights abuses, affecting the prices and practices of legitimate farmers and compromising sustainability gains.

Researchers from the University of Surrey and their colleagues have now published a Supply Chain Management study which describes how biomarkers could be used to identify ethically sourced chocolate.

These biomarkers would create fingerprint-like “meta-barcodes” – an unchanging barcode extracted from the plant’s DNA – providing a unique identifier of a plant, which can also be observed in its beans and subsequent chocolate products. These biomarkers would, the researchers propose, be used to identify the farm, production facility or agricultural cooperative at the source, with confidence.

To make this new process a reality, a controlled data set of biomarkers of registered locations is required for audit. The study goes on to explain that this missing piece – a biomarker database to identify the origin of cocoa products – can be built by companies at an estimated cost of £5 per sample.

Professor Glen Parry of the University of Surrey said: “The chocolate market has become turbulent and we have evidence of over 100 years of slavery in the supply chain. Governments and chocolate producers are faced with an ethical challenge and drastically need to improve a trade that is rife with environmental destruction and human misery.

“We have an effective approach for them to make progress,” he continued. “We demonstrate that biomarkers can provide supply chain visibility from the individual farm to the retail chocolate bar. This solution could now be within reach, where the journey of the chocolate in your fridge could be traced back to the cocoa trees where it began.” 

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