Chocolate is facing a global meltdown, and scientists at the University of California’s Innovative Genomics Institute—with support from the food manufacturer Mars—are now racing against impending climate changes that threaten to wipe out much of the industry by mid-century.
Most of the world’s chocolate is grown on swaths of land that hug the equator, in geographic regions known for nitrogen-rich soil, high humidity, and a lot of rainfall.
But scientists say that climate in these regions shift dramatically by 2050 towards hotter, drier conditions not suitable for cocoa farming due, in part, to the diseases those changes would usher in, including “witches’ broom” and “frosty pod rot.” Researchers at the Institute, a collaboration between the UC’s Berkeley and San Francisco campuses, announced yesterday (Jan. 2) that they working with the high-tech gene-editing system Crispr-Cas9 to engineer cacao trees to be resistant to some of the currently untreatable plant diseases a changing climate could exacerbate.
The work is important not just for people who enjoy chocolate, but also for the 40 to 50 million people worldwide who depend on it for their livelihoods. That includes some 5 million cocoa farmers with small operations, according to the World Cocoa Foundation.
According to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate change will also force farmers to higher altitudes. In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, chocolate production will have to move from 350-800 feet (100-250 meters) to 1,500-1,600 feet (450-500 meters) above sea level. That could stave off the threat from some of the climate change-related cacao diseases, but it also presents its own set of problems. In Ghana, for instance, moving to higher ground would mean encroaching on protected land.
With Crispr-Cas9 at their disposal, scientists can literally snip, add, or change parts of a cacao plant’s DNA sequence. In theory, they could create new versions of cacao that could help chocolate producers stay on their land. Though Crispr hasn’t been used on cacao before, other labs have successfully used the tool to modify other plants: in 2017, it was used to change the color of a flower and to modify grape leaves to be resistant to mildew, among other projects.
Whether the Berkeley-San Francisco work will be enough to preserve the world’s chocolate industry remains to be seen. Scientists say they expect the changing climate to impact the next generation of cacao farmers more than the current one.