It’s a headline no one wants to see.
Last week, Business Insider posted a story titled “Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years.” Yikes. That’s enough to inspire fear in the hearts of chocolate lovers everywhere — and compel them to click on the link.
Having spent the last five years in media, I know copy editors do what they can to get eyeballs onto the page and in front of advertising, which keeps news outlets — including Candy Industry — in business. It’s especially important to put something punchy online, where news stories compete for attention with reports from other outlets and the latest cat videos. But sometimes, the needle can tip away from “punchy” and toward “irresponsible.”
Why irresponsible? As soon as the Business Insider (BI) story published, news outlets across the Internet picked up the harbinger headline, hoping to capitalize on the story’s virality, and by extension, spreading fear that’s probably premature.
That said, the BI story brought to light points worth discussing. Climate change is a very real force impacting cacao trees, as indicated by a report cited in the story.
Published in 2016 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the report notes cacao trees grow within 20 degrees of the equator, performing best in “uniform temperatures, high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil and protection from wind.”
Not shockingly, Indonesia, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire are the world’s leading cocoa producers, with Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire producing more than half of the world’s supply. But, citing data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the NOAA report said those countries will experience a 3.8 degree increase in temperatures by 2050 under a “business as usual” scenario.
And it’s not the increase in temperatures that puts cacao trees at risk — it’s the potential decrease in rainfall and drying of soil that that could cause problems. Research from the IPCC noted that, as a result, suitable cacao cultivation areas will move up in elevation, from about 350-800 feet above sea level to 1,500-1,600 feet. Some of these higher-elevation areas, the report notes, are protected forest preserves.
It’s a tricky situation, but these changes are predicted to happen over four or five decades, giving farmers, researchers, and cocoa and chocolate companies time to respond. And many are doing just that. 
Highlighted in the BI story are Mars, Inc.-backed efforts by the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) at the University of California-Berkeley to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to develop cacao that’s resistant to disease. In a clarifying news release issued after the BI report, the IGI noted that while its focus is promoting disease resistance, climate change will affect cacao — but not to the terrifying degree trumpeted in the original report.
“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 release said. “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.”
Though not without its uncertainties, genetic studies and modification could prove to be a strong option for preserving cacao. But let’s not forget the sustainability initiatives launched by the World Cocoa Foundation and its partner companies and organizations — programs we’ve covered and will continue to cover as progress inches forward.
Many of these initiatives center around improving farming practices and yields, which is critical, but they also support the thousands of farmers who use cocoa to survive, not to fulfill a craving for chocolate. They’re the ones who really need protecting in this.
And while West Africa is the center of attention, for good reason, cocoa growers in South America, Asia and other parts of Africa can help supplement the supply, but they’ll likely face their own unique challenges in the future.
For certain, we’re not yet out of the woods, but taking a calm, measured approach is the best way to ensure the world’s favorite treat — and one of the most important crops — lives on.