Mars is working with scientists to save the cacao plant from extinction © 123RF
Mars is working with scientists to save the cacao plant from extinction © 123RF

Chocolate 'could run out in 30 years'

Chocolate could run out by 2050 because the crop used to make the confectionary will be harder to grow in a warming climate, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The cacao tree— from which we get cocoa beans—can only grow within a narrow strip of rain-forested land roughly 20 degrees north and south of the equator, where temperature, rain and humidity all stay relatively constant throughout the year.

Over half of the world’s cocoa now comes from just two countries in West Africa— Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.

However, a report by the NOAA said by 2050 rising temperatures are set to push today’s cocoa-growing regions more than 1,000 feet uphill into mountainous terrain—much of which is currently preserved for wildlife.

“The higher temperatures projected for West Africa by 2050 are will not be suitable for the crops becaue of the lessening humidity around the equator,” it said.

“These effects will push the perfect climate for growing cacao into higher and less suitable areas and eventually make it impossible to grow.”

The NOAA added that demand for chocolate had already outstripped supply, due to an increase in demand from the Asian market. This, coupled with the effects of climate change on yields could add up to a serious global shortage soon, it said.

Doug Hawkins, managing director of supply chain research firm Hardman Agribusiness, said part of the problem was also that most cocoa is produced by poor families who cannot afford fertilisers and pesticides, leaving the crops susceptible to disease.

“More than 90% of the global cocoa crop is produced by smallholders on subsistence farms with unimproved planting material,” he said.

“All the indicators are that we could be looking at a chocolate deficit of 100,000 tonnes a year in the next few years.”

In response to the findings, scientists from the University of California (UC) at Berkeley are working with Virginia-based manufacturer Mars to save the cacao plant. 

UC Berkeley scientists, led by Myeong-Je Cho, the director of plant genomics, have used new technology to modify the DNA of cacao crops so its tiny seedlings can survive in different climates.

The technology, known as CRISPR, allows for tiny, precise tweaks to DNA. The tweaks are already being used to make crops cheaper and more reliable in the developing world, where many plants people rely on to avoid starvation are threatened by the impacts of climate change.

Jennifer Doudna, the UC geneticist who invented CRISPR, said although her tool has received more attention for its potential to eradicate human disease and make so-called “designer babies”, its most profound applications will not be on humans but on the food they eat.

Mars, the company behind Snickers and M&M’s, announced that as part of its $1bn Sustainability in a Generation pledge to reduce its business and supply chain’s carbon footprint by more than 60% by 2050, it would collaborate with UC Berkeley scientists to save the cacao plant.

Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars, said if all goes as planned, CRISPR could develop cacao plants that will not wilt or rot at their current elevations, doing away with the need to relocate farms or find another approach. 

“We’re trying to go all in here,” he said.

“There are obviously commitments the world is leaning into but, frankly, we don’t think we’re getting there fast enough collectively.”

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