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Hate Genetic Modification But Love Chocolate? It's a Bittersweet Choice.

The future of chocolate is at risk.

SCIENCE AF STAFF
2 JAN 2018
 

There are few foods Americans love more than chocolate. Still, the safety of genetic modification is something the American public finds hard to swallow. It's a bittersweet choice when gene-editing may be the only way to save the cacao crop.

 

A new report released by Business Insider this week predicts the cacao plant could go extinct by as early as 2050 due to climate change.

The cacao plant is mostly found along a rainforest belt that runs 20 degrees north and south of the equator in West Africa, where 70 percent of the world's cocoa is produced. But thanks to rising temperatures in this region, the future of the crop's habitat is at risk.

The Ghana-based Nature Conservation Research Center has even predicted "chocolate may become as rare and expensive as caviar within 20 years."

Calm down, there's no need to start hoarding chocolate bars just yet.

A team of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley have teamed up with the Mars chocolate company to save the plant from extinction.

"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."

With a $1 billion pledge from the candy company - including a promise to reduce the carbon footprint of the business and supply chain by more than 60% by 2050 - scientists are researching ways to prepare cacao plants for warmer and dryer weather.

 

And they're going to be using the controversial DNA-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9.

CRISPR is a revolutionary technique that allows scientists to change, delete or replace DNA with precision. Because it has the potential to genetically enhance crops, the technology could be an invaluable tool when fighting world hunger - or when preserving the joys of chocolate for future generations.

The UC-Berkeley/Mars initiative to modify resilient cacao plants is an important endeavour that will be overseen by geneticist and CRISPR inventor Jennifer Doudna herself.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to expect resistance from the public. Even though CRISPR-edited foods are altered through a different process than GMO foods, scientists are preparing for similar consumer backlash - especially with regards to food labelling.

Because the public doesn't understand the technology, co-director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab David Just predicts CRISPR-edited foods will be met with nervous skepticism.

Even now, many people worry genetically-modified foods are unsafe to eat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A 2015 Pew survey found the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists is over the safety of genetically modified foods. While 88 percent of scientists agree genetically modified foods are safe to eat, the study found only 37 percent of the public agreed.

In fact, the topic was even more controversial than global warming, with 50 percent of the public accepting human-caused climate change.

It is unclear whether CRISPR will be able to avoid the Monsanto problem and the widespread distrust of genetic modification. But if they don't, chocolate may become an indulgence of the past.

Hopefully for those not yet persuaded by genetic modification, this will help convince them.