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Why chocolate is going extinct and how gene editing can save it

Chocolate, the much-loved delicacy across the globe may be extinct by 2050 as warned by the scientists is shocking for the sweet-toothed. It is again the global climatic change wreaking havoc on cacao plantation drastically reducing the production with the gradual rise in global temperature.

Cacao plants thrive only under specific conditions. It requires a stable high temperature, very high humidity, copious rainfall, and nitrogen-rich soil. These are the reasons that these plants can only be grown 10-20 degree North and South of the equator. The bulk of world’s cocoa production comes mainly from the Western African country Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and Indonesia.

Elevation is the key to grow cacao plants:

cocoa

The expected temperature rise by 2050 may push the cacao cultivation to higher elevations 1500-1600 feet above the sea level from the current elevation of 350-800 feet, which is optimal in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

This would mean further destruction of rainforests and preserved areas further damaging the ecosystem. In a few years, the government of both the leading cocoa producing countries would have to spend agonizing moments as they would be caught in a big dilemma of either saving cocoa plantation or the ecosystem.

Evapotranspiration – The threat to cacao trees:

cocoa

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the rising global temperature is unlikely to bring heavier rainfalls. The regions are expected to get hotter with much less humidity. In evapotranspiration, the higher temperatures squeeze out more water from the leaves and soil rendering it totally unsuitable for producing cocoa pods.

Under the existing business conditions, a marked reduction in suitable cultivation area for cacao trees would be observed by 2050 causing a dwindling of the cocoa harvest to almost nil.

Even under suitable conditions, cacao plantations are under the continuous threat of fungal attacks as humidity breeds fungi and the climatic change would add further woes to the cultivation.

Gene-editing to come to the rescue:

chocolate

Fortunately, a good news for the cacao farmers and chocolate fiends. About 40-50 million people depend on chocolate for their livelihood of which 5 million are cacao farmers running small operations as reported by the World Cocoa Foundation.

Scientists are attempting gene-tweaking of the cacao bean seeds with CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a genetic tool that can easily alter DNA sequences modifying the gene function.

With the CRISPR-Cas9 tool, the scientists can literally crop, add or change parts of DNA sequencing in cacao plants creating a new version which would help the producers remain in the business. As a result, we can not only get a better variety of cacao plant with increased climate tolerance but it would also be resistant to viral and fungal attacks.

This genetic tool was never been applied on cacao plants though it was effective in changing the color of the flower and modify grape leaves to be resistant to mildew attack in 2017.

Sweet initiatives:

carbon footprints

The global confectionary company Mars in collaboration with the scientists at the University of Berkeley, California in its Innovative Genomics Institute are trying to create a climate-resilient variety of cacao able to withstand higher temperature and drier conditions.

It is a part of the Mars’ larger initiative pledging $1 billion to reduce carbon footprints of its business and enhance the sustainability of cacao plantation. It has already launched Cacao Genome Project in 2008 to spot the traits which would help in developing climate adaptability, less water requirement and enhanced yield in the crop.

The scientists are reported to be using CRISPR tool to modify the DNA of cacao plants enabling them to thrive in different elevations at the same time being disease-resistant as well. CRISPR has gained popularity due to its implication in human genetics but scientists believe it would have a greater impact on food and agriculture especially in saving vulnerable crops.

Whether the efforts of Berkeley’s Genomic institute would deliver in line with expectations or not is a matter of time. Scientists have forewarned a greater impact of climate change on cacao cultivation for the next generation farmers.

For the chocolate lovers and growers, it would be a patient wait till an improved variety of cacao emerges from the prestigious research hub. Till then, keep on munching the sinful bites as long as it is within the reach.

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