The Extinction of Chocolate

It’s a scary possibility, but it’s also not quite as simple as that

At the turn of 2018, the internet melted at the news that chocolate would be going out of existence in 40 years. Supposedly because of rising global temperatures caused by global warming. It’s all well and good to get upset about polar bears, but chocolate! Where’s the humanity?

The original article published on Business Insider ran the headline “Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years.” Leaving aside the semantic issue of whether man-made confections can go extinct, this is a  shocking claim. Predictably the story went viral and suddenly every media outlet was reporting that chocolate was heading out of existence.

But could it really be true? Given that to be declared technically extinct, there would have be no sightings of cacao trees for 50 years, it seems implausible. A classic case of a need for clicks winning out over the integrity of reporting. But if not totally extinct, what is the future for cacao production and how will it affect your daily fix? Let’s examine the facts and try to assuage our fears.

The Claim
The original Business Insider article starts with the claim that “cacao plants are under threat of devastation thanks to warmer temperatures and dryer weather conditions.” It focuses on a new gene editing technology—CRISPR—which scientists hope to use to tweak the DNA of cacao trees so that they are better able to cope with climate change, explaining that multinational confectionery giant Mars helped fund the research as part of a USD1 billion effort to reduce the carbon footprint of the business. The article goes into more detail about the new technology and its applications for other plants like cassava, but barely mentions chocolate again.

It continually references another online piece, published on Scientific American, about an attempt to sequence the cacao tree genome “to stop the spread of two virulent pathogens that threaten to devastate the world’s cacao crop.”

It goes on to say that cacao trees have largely been wiped out from their native South America by these diseases, and that if any of this diseased material made it to West Africa—where most of the world’s cacao is produced—and was able to infect the trees there, it “would lead to the loss of one third of total global production.”

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The Scientific American article is linked via this part of the quote above: “under threat of devastation thanks to warmer temperatures and dryer weather conditions.” But doesn’t mention climate change once. Something’s amiss here.

The Business Insider piece also references an article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that is all about the threat of climate change to cacao production. Specifically to cacao trees of The Ivory Coast and Ghana, the same areas mentioned in the Scientific American article.

The NOAA article states that in these areas “by 2050, rising temperatures will push the suitable cacao cultivation areas uphill.” The worry is that as temperatures rise and cause plants to lose more moisture, and with rainfall expected to remain much the same, the cacao plants will not be able to survive in the larger low lying areas. They will only survive in much smaller areas, higher up, where the temperature is lower. This will result in a massive reduction in the area suitable for growing the trees.

The Upshot
There are two different issues purporting to effect the chocolate supply, muddled into one article. One of climate change and one of disease. Neither one is going to cause the extinction of cacao in 40 years, so don’t panic. The furthest either referenced article goes is to say cacao trees in around half the world’s growing regions are under threat. They don’t even talk about the other half, or about the impact of the threat.

To be fair to Business Insider, the article was published on December 31st. It’s reasonable to suppose that the reporter had her mind on other things on New Year’s Eve and probably didn’t realize the story would go viral and be picked over so carefully. In her bio it even states that she enjoys everything  from “sequencing her own DNA at a biohacking lab in Brooklyn to raving at 4am.” In the end, it turned out to be a brilliant piece of online marketing which saw her story, a rather dull one about DNA research, go viral across the internet. So hats off and who cares about the facts?

What Is The Destiny Of Chocolate Then, If Not Complete Oblivion?
Like so many other things we hold dear, there certainly seems to be a threat here, whether it’s from climate change or disease, or a combination of the two.

The NOAA article concludes that if nothing is done, chocolate production will suffer hugely. But it states that in all likelihood, something will be done, probably by the global corporations that stand to lose billions of dollars in revenue if production suffers.

A statement from UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, released only a few days after the Business Insider article went viral attempts to clear up the issue: “Scientists predict that climate change will significantly reduce the amount of land suitable for cultivating cacao in the coming decades, though probably not to the point of extinction.”

Given that Mars is already aware of the problems and investing in research to solve it, it looks like chocolate is relatively safe for the time being and is certainly not going to wiped out in 40 years. But it’s another stark warning about how our actions are affecting our planet and our food supply.

There are two lessons to learn from this episode:
1. Don’t trust everything you read online. 2. If huge corporations stand to profit from the production of anything, it will not go extinct. Ever. It’s something to think about next time you’re unwrapping a Mars bar.

Images by Vy Lam

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