Climate change could mean no more chocolate in 40 years, unless ongoing gene-editing efforts are able to make the cacao plant resistant to climate change effects. Thanks to climate change, the food of the Gods — chocolate, in case you were wondering — could be off-menu for humans in just 40 years. This may shock you, but it isn’t exactly news. It was a 2013 study by P Läderach, A Martinez-Valle, G Schroth and N Castro that first flagged this. Then, in February 2016, a web journal brought out by the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published an article that cited the Läderach et al study — this stirred enough disquiet to get one of the largest chocolate companies in the world to start a climate action programme. Bitter as it may be to swallow, the fact is that in a ‘business as usual’ scenario — with emissions continuing unabated — the already-narrow band of land on which Theobroma (from Greek ‘theos’, meaning Gods, and ‘broma’, meaning food) cacao, or the cocoa tree, can grow will shrink drastically. Cacao can grow only within 20 degrees north and south of the Equator — that is, it will thrive only in rainforest conditions that include uniform temperatures, high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil and protection from wind. More than 50% of world’s cocoa comes from just two countries, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The Läderach et al study indicates that these countries will experience a 2.1 C rise in temperature by 2050. This will push the optimal altitude for cacao cultivation in both countries from 100-250 metres to 450-500 metres above sea level.
The 2016 NOAA article points out that this shift will mean Ghana will be able to cultivate cacao in its Atewa Range, a forest preserve where, of course, cultivation isn’t permitted. This means Ghana will have to choose between growing cacao and a hitherto protected natural reserve.
Given cocoa production means 15% of the GDP for Côte d’Ivoire and 7% for Ghana, and is important to rural livelihoods in both countries, it is a trade-off they wouldn’t want to be faced with. Läderach et al had examined 294 cacao-growing locations in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and found that only 10.5% of the area showed suitability for cocoa production in 2050, not enough to keep up with global demand. Mars, the $35-billion American company that makes, among other things, confectionery and chocolate, has started an initiative to reduce the carbon footprint of its and its supply-chain’s operations by 60%. As part of this, as reported by Business Insider, it is funding gene-editing-centred research at the University of California at Berkeley into making the cacao more tolerant of conditions that may arise in the future because of climate change, including increased vulnerability to pests and drier ambient conditions.
The chocolate extinction that scientists foresee will be more because of pervasive changes in humidity levels than increased temperature. The increase in transpiration and evaporation loss due to the higher temperatures predicted will have a retarding effect on cacao production as this is unlikely to be offset by higher rainfall. Apart from ongoing gene-editing efforts, another strategy that cacao-growing nations could adopt is Brazil’s cabruca — the practice of replanting taller rainforest trees to provide shade to cacao trees. This has been shown to bring down evaporation and transpiration losses, but it also means having lesser acreage under cacao. Cabruca also means partial retention of rainforests provides for carbon-sinks.