COLUMN: Take chocolate shortage fears with a grain of salt

Myeong-Je Cho, director of plant genomics at the Innovative Genomic Institute, may be remembered by historians as the man who saved chocolate. The goal of his current research project is to bioengineer cacao plants that can grow in dry, hot climates.  

Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, which only grows in warm humid climates with nitrogen-rich soil near the equator, and more than 50 percent of the world’s chocolate comes from two countries: Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.  However, by 2050, there could be a significant decrease in the amount of land that is suitable for cacao plants.  

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that if global carbon emission rates do not change, there would be an increase of almost 4 degrees in these countries by 2050.  This would have a substantial effect on the amount of land that can sustain cacao plants.  Although temperatures are expected to increase, rainfall is not, making the climate dry and arid in these nations.

One potential solution to the impending chocolate shortage may be CRISPR, a gene editing technique first developed by Japanese researchers in 1987. CRISPR allows for highly specific changes to be made in an organism’s genetic code, which could allow scientists to create new breeds of cacao trees that are more resistant to fungal diseases, insects, drought and extreme temperatures. 

Fears of a dwindling global chocolate supply are nothing new. Amid the ebola outbreak, climatic changes and market shifts of 2014, Mars, Inc. and Barry Callebaut warned that global demand for chocolate would outweigh global supply by one million metric tons by 2020. 

But Michael Segal, the spokesman for the International Cocoa Organization — a worldwide group of nations that produce and consume cocoa — said that claims of a 2020 chocolate shortage were overblown. The global economy will always be chaotic and these kinds of predictions can fluctuate due to temporary political unrest or environmental shifts. 

While the threat of losing chocolate may not be imminent, the effect climate change will have on our food supply is tremendous. This alone should encourage our government and more companies like Mars, which pledged $1 billion to sustainable business practices, to focus more on how to fight climate change

Climate change is a very real thing and humanity will most certainly feel its effects through the coming decades. We may not yet need to kiss our beloved chocolate goodbye, but our nation and global community should continue to develop new industrial and agricultural practices that will enable our continued survival, should climate change be allowed to continue unaddressed. 

CRISPR may produce a temporary solution, but the disastrous effects of climate change will still take a profound toll on the biodiversity and human populations of the world. 

If losing chocolate is what it will take for our government to finally treat climate change as a real issue instead of another instance of “fake news,” it is a sacrifice we must be prepared to make.

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