As climate change threatens the survival of the cacao tree, scientists believe genetic engineering could be the answer.

Chocolate is heavily consumed worldwide and has been a staple in the food industry for centuries. Unfortunately, studies speculate that the plant needed for chocolate production—the cacao plant—is at risk of going extinct by 2050.

While one would not consider a chocolate extinction to be a possible result of climate change, that is exactly what studies are reporting.

Climate Change Threatens Chocolate Production

The cacao plant requires a specific environment to flourish; more specifically, it requires one that stays relatively wet and humid year round. Because of this, rainforests have long been the home of the cacao plant. However, in the next 40 years, rainforests are projected to be so drastically impacted by climate change that the cacao plant will no longer have a habitable environment.

In response to these threats, most countries have continued taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the reduction of their footprint. Despite these efforts, a NOAA study—which cited 294 cacao tree growing locations—reported that 89.5 percent of them were likely to become less suitable by 2050 and only 10.5 percent had increased sustainability for cacao production. Even chocolate giant Mars pledged $1 billion toward the reduction of their carbon footprint in efforts to prevent a chocolate extinction.

While continued efforts to reduce our carbon footprint would be beneficial to more than just cacao tree preservation, the numbers indicate that further efforts are required. While there is debate over the likelihood of the plant facing total extinction, the risk of a chocolate extinction has been enough cause for concern that scientists are now working to use genetic engineering technology as a possible solution.

Science Saves the Day

As previously mentioned, Mars pledged $1 billion toward reducing their carbon footprint, and part of that money has been given to a lab at the biosciences building of UC Berkeley. It’s at this lab where Myeong-Je Cho, Director of Plant Genomics, hosts cacao seedlings. The intent is to genetically engineer the seedlings to survive different climates.

The revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9, which we previously reported is being used to innovate cancer treatment, is being tested to prevent a chocolate extinction.

The brief rundown of the CRISPR-Cas9 is that it finds pieces of DNA, snips them out, and replaces them with altered DNA. But, how could this genetic engineering technology help prevent a chocolate extinction? Cho, Mars, and Jennifer Doudna—who also works at UC Berkeley, and whose research was essential to the creation of the gene-editing technology—plan to isolate genes that make cacao plants so fragile and replace them with genes that can withstand changing climate.

CRISPR to the Rescue

This means that by using the CRISPR-Cas9, the team could potentially engineer a cacao tree that would not only make it through the expected climate changes among the rainforest, but could be grown outside of that environment as well. The possibility of producing chocolate anywhere in the world is beyond promising, it would be game changing. While the effort remains in its early stages, it is exciting to see how this method could impact chocolate production as we know it.