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Can GMOs Save Chocolate?

Can GMOs Save Chocolate?

GMOs may be able to save chocolate. The bigger question is whether we want them to. Some researchers point out that creating an ideal GMO chocolate isn’t going to be easy.

Grades

3 - 12

Subjects

Biology, Genetics, Geography, Physical Geography

















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If you're a chocolate lover, your favorite dessert might be in trouble. The average American eats about five and a half kilograms (12 pounds) of chocolate per year. During the week of Valentine's Day, the country consumes about 26.3 million kilograms (58 million pounds) of the tasty treat.

All that may be coming to an end, because a chocolate shortage is predicted to hit in the next five years. A shortage is when there isn't enough of something to go around. This shortage is due to climate change, disease and an increased demand for chocolate around the globe.

The Nature Conservation Research Center (NCRC) is based in Ghana, a country in western Africa. Ghana is the world's second-largest producer of the beans used to make chocolate. The NCRC predicts that in 20 years, chocolate will be a very rare and expensive treat.

The main ingredient in chocolate is cacao, which comes from the seeds (also called beans) of the cacao tree. Cacao seeds grow inside pods the size of footballs, which sprout directly out of the tree trunk.


Cacao Is Not Easy To Grow

Chocolate may be delicious and addictive, but cacao is very difficult to grow. Cacao trees only grow in very specific areas. The trees are believed to have originated in the warm, moist rain forests of South America. They do not grow well in climates other than near the equator, the line that horizontally goes around Earth's circumference. This region tends to be the hottest on the planet. Further north or south, cacao may still grow, but it refuses to make seeds.

There are also many diseases that affect cacao. In the 1990s, a fungus called witches' broom wiped out the cacao trees in Brazil. Before the fungus, Brazil was the world's largest producer of the crop. Worldwide today, cacao farmers lose about $750 million each year due to diseased trees.

In addition, cacao trees grow incredibly slowly. It can take up to five years for a tree to produce fruit and up to 10 years to know if the cacao tastes good.

Homero Castro, a chocolate farmer from Ecuador, came up with one possible solution. He was able to grow a type of cacao called CCN-51 that can resist diseases and produce many seeds. The only problem is that the seeds taste lousy. Critics say that CCN-51 tastes like vinegar or wood shavings. Some even describe the flavor as "acidic dirt."


Resorting To GMO Beans

Despite the poor flavor, some larger chocolate makers will likely end up using CCN-51 when the shortage hits. Today, about 95 percent of chocolate is made from "bulk beans." These beans are usually lower quality and are beefed up with extra sugar and other flavors anyway. The belief is that most people will not taste a difference.

That may not be true for fancier chocolates that rely on perfectly flavored beans, however. High-end chocolate makers will probably not use a bean like CCN-51. Master chocolatiers spend time and effort picking just the right mix of flavors, from cashew to raisin to cherry. Instead of CCN-51, fancy chocolate companies may have to turn to genetic engineering and GMOs.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. GMOs are plants or animals whose genes were changed in a lab so that they would grow certain traits. Genetically modified trees may be more productive, for example. Scientists could make cacao that is more flavorful or resistant to diseases. Most scientists say GMO foods are not dangerous, but some people still think they are unhealthy.

Scientists have already taken a close look at cacao DNA. Mark Guiltinan studies molecular biology at Penn State University. He said that it will be possible to produce high-quality cacao using genetic engineering. However, no one has created GMO cacao yet.

Researchers say that creating the perfect chocolate is not going to be easy. Chocolate is a very complex food, containing 600 different elements that make up its overall flavor. Developing a GMO cacao plant that is both healthy and flavorful will be very difficult. Still, with a chocolate shortage quickly approaching, it may be our best bet.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
Rebecca Rupp
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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