Can GMOs Save Chocolate?

GMOs may be able to save chocolate. The bigger question is whether we want them to.

Chocolate–the scrumptious confection of Valentine boxes and Easter baskets–is in trouble. The average American eats about 12 pounds of chocolate a year, and a collective 58 million pounds during the chocolate-laden week of Valentine’s Day.

But all that indulgence may be coming to an end. A chocolate shortage, to the tune of one million metric tons, is predicted to hit within the next five years, the result of climate change, disease, and the demands of rapidly growing populations of chocolate lovers in China and India.

The Nature Conservation Research Center based in Ghana–the world’s second-largest producer of chocolate after the Ivory Coast–predicts glumly that within the next 20 years, chocolate will be as rare and as expensive as caviar.

Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree, borne in football-sized pods that sprout directly out of the trunk. Dubbed Theobroma cacao, from the Latin for “food of the gods,” cacao is just what one might expect from an ancient, double-dealing deity: a delicious and addictive treat paired with a plant that is tricky, if not downright impossible, to grow.

A cacao seed pod in a farmer's hands, Ivory Coast

Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic Creative

Cacao, believed to have originated in the steamy Amazon rainforest, is reluctant to adapt to conditions other than those of home: it now only grows in a belt 20 degrees north or south of the Equator, nicknamed the “20/20 zone.” Further north or south, cacao can be coaxed to grow, but it stubbornly refuses to produce seeds.

Along with its geographical limitations, cacao is stunningly susceptible to disease–notably to witches’ broom, a fungus that wiped out the cacao trees of Ecuador in the 1920s, and devastated the chocolate plantations of Brazil–once the world’s largest producer of cocoa–in a ten-year period starting in 1989. Worldwide today, cacao farmers lose an annual $750 million to disease.

Cacao trees are also painfully slow growers. It can take up to five years for a tree to produce fruit, and as long as ten before it becomes clear that the tree has desirable traits such as disease resistance or ultra-flavorful seeds. “Pardon my French, but cacao is a pain in the a**,” says Jim Eber, co-author of Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate.

Trinidad’s Cocoa Research Center, along with the International Cocoa Genebank are home to 2,400 varieties of cacao. It has the collective potential to produce any number of creative hybrids–but the conventional breeding process, given cacao’s tortoise-like growth rate, won’t be easy.

Conventional cacao breeding is also unpredictable. Take, for example, CCN-51. Developed by the late Homero Castro, a chocolate-impassioned agronomist from Ecuador, this is the cacao variety now generally acknowledged to be the world’s best bet to stave off chocolate disaster.

Touted by some as a “miracle tree,” CNN-51 – a short, squat plant that sprouts bright-red pods–is sturdy, disease-resistant, and prolific, producing four to ten times the yield of run-of-the-mill cacao trees. The bad news, however, is that its seeds taste lousy. The kindest description of CNN-51 chocolate’s flavor is “flat.” Less tactful critics compare it to rusty nails, vinegar, wood shavings, and “acidic dirt.”

Despite the drawbacks, however, some large chocolate manufacturers have come around to CNN-51. About 95 percent of chocolate is made from “bulk beans,” generally inferior stuff which is heavily processed and beefed up with sugar and added flavors, such as vanilla. For such purposes, CNN-51 is just fine; and the belief is that most consumers won’t notice a difference.

For artisanal chocolate makers, however, who depend on delectable flavor beans for their high-end products, it’s a different story. “Artisan chocolate,” states the website of Seattle’s Chocopolis, “is like a good bottle of wine,” carefully blended by master chocolatiers to contain just the right bouquet of flavor notes: cashew, raisin, cherry, even a hint of “grassy” or “earthy.”

These people aren’t likely to adopt a bean, no matter how prolific, that smacks of acidic dirt.

It may be time to turn to genetic engineering.

The genome of the cacao plant has been sequenced as of 2011 (by two different groups of scientists, one affiliated with Mars–maker of Snickers, Milky Way, and M&Ms, the other with rival Hershey’s). From among chocolate’s approximately 30,000 genes (that is, about 10,000 more than us), scientists have identified gene sequences that govern disease resistance and direct the production of helpful metabolites and flavor components. Molecular biologist Mark Guiltinan of Penn State University believes that such genetic analyses may eventually help produce disease-resistant, high-yield cacao plants.

To date, no GMO cacao has been developed for the field. Despite a host of positive safety studies, there’s tremendous public pressure to avoid genetically modified foods–and perhaps especially in our beloved bars and bonbons. In fact, many chocolate companies are now striving to become GMO-free, often a difficult process since it involves foregoing corn syrup and soy lecithin–both common ingredients of chocolates–that are made from GMO crops. (According to a recent USDA report, “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States,” about 88 percent of American corn and 93 percent of American soybeans are genetically modified.)

Some researchers point out that creating an ideal GMO chocolate isn’t going to be easy. Chocolate is a mind-bogglingly complex food, containing some 600 different flavor components. (Even red wine boasts a mere 200.) Cobbling together the right mix of flavors–along with disease-resistance, a rapid growth rate, and high productivity–may prove to be an heroic task.

Still, given increasing world demand and the cacao tree’s environmentally dicey future, it may be our best chance to save chocolate as we all know and love it.