Chocolate will not go 'extinct', but climate change is real, says scientist

By Douglas Yu

- Last updated on GMT

Diseased cocoa beans discarded on a farm in the state Bahia of Brazil.  Photo: CN
Diseased cocoa beans discarded on a farm in the state Bahia of Brazil. Photo: CN

Related tags Global warming Greenhouse gas Climate change Chocolate

A scientist at the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) said chocolate would not go extinct as reported by multiple media outlets recently, even though global warming could shrink the cultivatable areas for cocoa trees.

An earlier study led by Peter Läderach​, researcher at International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), showed that Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana’s optimal altitude for cacao cultivation is expected to rise from 350 - 800 feet to 1,500 -1,600 feet above sea level by 2050 due to increased temperature.

These two West African nations account for over half of the world’s cocoa supply. However, nearly 11% of the locations examined in Läderach’s study showed “increasing suitability”​ for cocoa production.

Doxzen Headshot
Dr. Kevin Doxzen Pic: IGI

"Global warming and climate change is affecting the prosperity of many crops."

“We [at IGI] were surprised to see those headlines… Not to mention there are many other regions in the world that are producing cocoa beans,”​ said Dr. Kevin Doxzen, science communications specialist at IGI.

Working with Mars to create disease-resistant cocoa trees

The IGI, formed in partnership between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, is currently working with Mars to edit cocoa trees’ DNA via a new technology called CRISPR, hoping to better adapt to warmer weather, according to Doxzen.

He said the collaborative project is not so much about combating “chocolate extinction, but there are viruses and fungus that decimate cocoa fields. The fact is global warming and climate change is really affecting the prosperity of many crops like cassava, rice and wheat.”

“You can get the same results (altering crops’ DNA) during the normal breeding selection, but that will take years after years. Through CRISPR, you can do it in less than one year so cocoa can be more resistant to infection,”​ Doxzen said.

CRISPR could also edit DNA according to regions of the cocoa plants to fight different diseases, he added.

Mars told ConfectioneryNews it supports “fundamental scientific research through unrestricted grants at many leading universities across the world, including the University of California.”

“This grant in particular supports UC Berkeley’s research into the control of cacao tree diseases called cocoa swollen shoot virus disease (CSSVD) and Black Pod disease (BP), using CRISPR technology. CSSVD and BP are serious concerns for cocoa farming communities in West Africa,”​ Mars’ spokesperson Denise Meredith said.

Additionally, the M&M’s maker has initiated several sustainability projects to battle global warming over the past few years.

Mars promised to make 100% of its packaging​ recyclable or recoverable by 2015, although it missed the target by 11% in 2016; the firm is also on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions​ across its value chain by 27% by 2025 and 67% by 2050.

Not affecting taste and nutritional profile

The study of using CRISPR to create disease-resistant cocoa has not been completed, but there are early “positive signs,”​ said Doxzen. He pointed out that the technology would not affect the taste and nutritional profile of the final chocolate products.

Doxzen said the CRISPR project is expected to finish in a couple of years, and eventually it could benefit more chocolate suppliers and manufacturers in addition to Mars, such as Barry Callebaut.

“Getting it done could arguably be the easiest part, then you have talk to those countries in West Africa, and more importantly, talk to local farmers and educate them how CRISPR could benefit their farms. That could take much longer,”​ Doxzen said. 

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