Cacao Trees Are Currently Threatened — Here's What That Means for Chocolate

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Feb. 12 2021, Updated 12:11 p.m. ET

Are Cacao Trees Extinct
Source: Jessica Loaiza/Unsplash

Cacao trees, which are known as "the food of the gods," are responsible for one of life's greatest gifts: chocolate. Native to South America, the cacao tree produces thousands of small flowers every year, which produce massive fruits that contain between 30 and 60 seeds each. These seeds are specially processed, and made into chocolate — but with the ongoing climate crisis, the tropical fruit-bearing trees may be on the brink of extinction.

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Why are cacao trees threatened? And, most importantly, what will happen to chocolate if the trees start to die out? Your favorite late-night indulgence may be at risk.

cacao tree
Source: Getty Images
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What is happening to cacao trees? They are currently threatened by climate change.

For cacao trees to produce cacao fruit, its flowers require pollinating, but only 10 to 20 percent of the flowers are generally pollinated, according to EcoWatch, leaving 90 percent to die within 36 hours of opening. Scientists are looking at the responsible pollinators — biting midges and gall midges — which seem to be relying on cacao plants less and less. Though the reason for this is unclear, there seems to be a link to climate change and agricultural intensification, per ScienceDirect.

Cacao trees are also seriously threatened by global warming, because they can only thrive within 10 degrees of either side of the equator with stable temperatures, high humidity, and ample amounts of rain, according to Harvard University. However, temperatures are rapidly rising while rainfall has decreased by 30 percent in the last 50 years, which, in turn, also lowers the humidity. By 2050, cacao trees are expected to die out by almost 33 percent worldwide.

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cacao tree threatened
Source: Getty Images

What will happen to chocolate if cacao trees go extinct?

If cacao trees start to die out, cacao farmers across South America, Central America, Africa, and parts of Asia who rely on harvesting cacao will be out of work, according to Global Citizen. Not only will pure chocolate become somewhat of a rarity, but it will also cause widespread unemployment across the globe. 

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However, farmers are currently starting to implement hand-pollinated techniques, according to ScienceDaily, so humans could manually pollinate the trees themselves and ensure flowers don't go to waste. Watch the video, below, on how farmers are starting to use this new technique.

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Scientists are also currently looking into creating special DNA modification technology to manipulate cacao trees' required growing conditions, according to Business Insider. If these notoriously finicky trees are able to grow in other parts of the world, and are able to withstand droughts and high temperatures, they may be able persevere through inclement growing conditions, which are a result of the ongoing climate crisis. But is this really the answer to our problems?

Instead of investing time and money into helping cacao trees withstand climate change, are we able to put more effort into curbing climate change overall? The answers are seemingly unclear, but if global warming continues to worsen and society doesn't start making some drastic changes, your beloved late-night dark chocolate stash may be in grave danger.

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