Climate change is affecting our lives on virtually every level. The most obvious form is the increasingly extreme and more frequent inclement weather, so much so that in some regions they force their inhabitants to move to other areas. They are called climate refugees or environmental refugees.
But there are also other effects that affect societies indirectly. It promotes the appearance of new allergies, alters the populations of native bees, modifies the seasonality of the rains, changes the fire regimes or the temperature of the soil… events that, many of them, can directly affect the agricultural and livestock sectors. and forestry. Some foods may become extinct in the coming decades.
And this is what is said to happen with chocolate.
How is cocoa grown?
Chocolate is obtained from the seeds of the cacao tree, of the species Theobroma cacao . The cocoa tree takes several years to produce fruit, and does not usually have a longevity of more than three decades. It needs warm temperatures and high levels of humidity, both ambient and in the form of precipitation, with a minimum range of 1150 mm per year. The soil must also meet a series of requirements for its cultivation, it must be a porous soil, with a neutral pH, between 6 and 7, and high levels of fertility. It does not tolerate well swampy soils or soils prone to flooding, or too clayey, sandy or stony. In addition, it must be grown in the shade, either in the shade of other trees, or other buildings.
The cocoa tree is native to the tropical and subtropical region of America, where it was a highly valued food by pre-Columbian cultures, who attributed a divine status to it. The first domestication of cocoa is estimated to have happened between 5,300 and 5,500 years ago in the territory of present-day Santa Ana, Florida, to the southwest of Ecuador, and from there it spread to Mesoamerica. Currently, it is also cultivated in the tropical region of Africa, especially in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the world’s leading cocoa producers today.
And this is where the main problem lies. If climate predictions come true, it is estimated that the most productive regions of Africa will cease to be so in the coming decades. The alteration of the rainy periods and their decrease, as well as the increase in environmental drought, will cause many agricultural areas to lose the conditions for growing cocoa.
Epidemics add to the impact
In addition to the risk caused by climate change, cocoa cultivation is facing a series of diseases that will seriously affect production, to the point of its disappearance. The most problematic diseases are three: the “ witch’s broom ” effect caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa ; “frost rot”, caused by M. roreri , and “black rot”, caused by fungi of the genus Phytophthora .
These pathogens have repeatedly behaved like epidemics, causing episodes of losses of up to 90% of production in some places. If the situation does not improve, the days of cocoa farming may be numbered, as is the case with Cavendish bananas.
Do not panic!
The outlook seems daunting, but fortunately it has solutions. Answering the headline question, no, cocoa probably won’t go extinct. Not in the near future at least.
We know that all current species will surely become extinct in the long term and new species will take their place. This is how the dynamics of life have worked throughout the history of the Earth. But the extinction of cocoa does not seem, far from it, imminent.
The diseases referred to usually have local effects, and do not affect on a pandemic scale. As long as there are healthy crops, there will still be seed sources and affected areas will be able to replant cocoa once the disease is eradicated. Of course, these epidemics cause serious economic problems in the populations where they spread, but they do not have a global effect.
On the other hand, climate change does have a global effect, but that is where the solution lies. Certainly the crops of Ghana and the Ivory Coast are in danger and its effects are worrying, since a good part of the economy of both countries depends on the cultivation of cocoa.
But cocoa is being grown in many other regions of Africa, much of the Americas and even Australia, and climate change is likely to make other environments favorable for cocoa growing within decades.
On the other hand, the sequencing of its genome and the application of biotechnology can also provide new varieties of cocoa capable of growing in the new climatic environment. Techniques such as transgenesis or gene editing using CRISPR can produce plants that are tolerant to low rainfall or a reduction in environmental humidity.
Arvelo Sánchez, M. Á. et al. 2017. Technical manual for cocoa cultivation – Good Practices for Latin America . Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture.
Bunn, C. et al. 2018. Climate change and cocoa cultivation. Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited. DOI: 10.19103/AS.2017.0021.28
Meinhardt, L. W. et al. 2008. Moniliophthora perniciosa , the causal agent of witches’ broom disease of cacao: what’s new from this old foe? MolecularPlant Pathology, 9(5), 577-588. DOI: 10.1111/j.1364-3703.2008.00496.x