If you’ve caught much news recently, you’ll probably have seen headlines about the looming extinction crisis set to wipe out chocolate in 40 years. It’s a scary possibility, but it’s also not quite as simple as that.
This viral story is doing the rounds courtesy of an article on Business Insider, which warned chocolate is “on track to go extinct in 40 years” due to climate change, with cacao plants “slated to disappear by as early as 2050 thanks to warmer temperatures and dryer weather conditions”.
As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about with climate change, this truly nightmarish scenario serves up even more reason to feel alarmed – except, thankfully, the warning isn’t altogether accurate.
The main focus of the story is actually on how scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are experimenting with CRISPR gene editing to see how they can tweak cacao – the plant used to make chocolate.
The research initiative – which is part of a sustainability drive backed by the Mars corporation to the tune of US$1 billion to help safeguard future cacao supply – is chiefly looking at how to make the plant more resistant to viral and fungal diseases.
“We’re trying to go all in here,” Mars’ chief sustainability officer, Barry Parkin, told Business Insider.
“There are obviously commitments the world is leaning into but, frankly, we don’t think we’re getting there fast enough collectively.”
But where does it say cacao is heading for extinction in 40 years? Well, the article links to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report from 2016, itself citing research released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014.
That research warned that under one “business as usual” scenario predicting unabated global temperature rises of 2.1°C (3.8°F) by 2050, two of the world’s leading cacao producers – the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana region of Africa, and Indonesia – will lose significant amounts of suitable cultivation area.
It’s a concerning prospect, and definitely something we should be aware of, but as for global chocolate extinction by 2050? As far as it stands, that’s unsubstantiated, especially since cacao can also be cultivated elsewhere.
“Cacao is grown in other places, like Australia, and it’s not even native to Africa (it comes from the New World),” evolutionary biologist Ingrid Parker from UC Santa Cruz told Snopes.
This week, only a couple of days after the Business Insider article was published, UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute issued a press release, perhaps trying to clarify the issue.
“While not addressed directly by this project, climate change also threatens cacao,” the release reads.
“Scientists predict that climate change will significantly reduce the amount of land suitable for cultivating cacao in the coming decades, though probably not to the point of extinction. The vast majority of cacao is produced in West Africa, and reducing the amount of cacao-producing land to an even narrower region could speed up the spread of disease.”
So yes, we should be concerned about climate change. Yes, we should be thinking about how it and other environmental forces are changing the natural world and having a potentially devastating impact on global food production.
But we should also be careful not to take every scary headline at face value.
Especially when chocolate is at stake.