Chocolate’s future may be saved by green St. Louis startup

CREVE COEUR, Mo. - A St. Louis start-up is working to make crops more sustainable, nutritious and healthy. A recent partnership with a major candy company has the start-up focusing its attention on a key ingredient in chocolate.

Americans will spend an estimated $2.6 billion on candy this Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation. Creve Coeur-based Benson Hill Biosystems is working to improve the resiliency and productivity of the delicate cacao tree, an essential ingredient in chocolate.

"It's very susceptible to small changes in climate, it's also susceptible to a lot of diseases which are becoming more and more prevalent," said Matt Crisp, President and CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems.

In a greenhouse at the Danforth Center, Crisp showed Fox 2 the corn his team is studying to learn more about cacao which grows along the earth's equator. Using data and technology, the team studies the natural genetic diversity of cacao.

"How do we tap into that opportunity and use its genetic diversity to improve it, to advance it, to make it more resilient in the face of climate change, and to ultimately make it more sustainable," Crisp said.

The team's research is getting a lot of attention. Google invested $60 million into the company. Benson Hill Biosystems also recently partnered up with Mars, Incorporated to come up with a way to make the cacao tree more productive, stress tolerant, and climate resilient which is crucial to keeping products like Snickers, Twix, and M&Ms affordable for consumers. Plus, the new approach will enable farmers to produce more cacao from less land.

"The more scarce this plant becomes, the more threatened it becomes, given the evolving climate, given the disease pressure that it faces, then the more scarce the cacao fruit, then the more scarce the chocolate, then the more expensive the chocolate is for the consumer," said Crisp.

Crisp said he chose St. Louis to grow his crop improvement company because it had everything he needed to be successful: money, space, and talent.