Melting Chocolate in a Warming World
Picture this: a world where chocolate is as rare as gold. No more five-dollar bags of candy on Halloween. No more boxes of truffles on Valentine's day. No more roasting s'mores by the campfire. No more hot chocolate on a cold winter's day.
Who wants to live in a world like that?
Unfortunately, we all could be if our climate keeps changing.
So how will the climate crisis affect one of the world's most beloved culinary delights? The verdict doesn't look good for chocolate lovers worldwide — and more importantly, it's a threat to the farming communities that depend on cacao for their livelihoods.
Cacao is in Trouble
Cacao, or the cocoa bean, is the main ingredient in chocolate. A rather picky plant, it grows only in the warm, humid regions near the equator, largely in areas designated as rainforests. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cacao trees require steady temperatures, high humidity, lots of rain, nitrogen-rich soil, and protection from wind to thrive.
Cacao is grown in the regions highlighted in red below:
The climate crisis is already affecting many of the world's crops, including another fan favorite: coffee. Unlike coffee, which suffers most from rising temperatures, cacao is impacted most by decreased humidity. Regions where cacao grows best often have humidity levels of 100 percent during the day and 70–80 percent at night.
One major (and often under-discussed) facet of the climate crisis is its impact on the water cycle. As the globe heats up, the stages of the water cycle become more erratic and floods and droughts become more prevalent and extreme. In tropical environments, rising temperatures lead to increased evaporation rates and decreased humidity, causing cacao crops to suffer.
A 2013 report found that the land area suitable for the cultivation of cacao is shifting dramatically. The optimal growing altitude in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, which combined produce over 50 percent of the world's cacao, is expected to rise between 800 and 1,150 feet by 2050.
As suitable growing conditions are pushed uphill, some plots of land will have to be abandoned entirely, and others are likely to experience a dramatic drop in crop yields.
Impacts on Cacao Farmers
The cooperative employs direct trade practices, in which they purchase cacao directly from the local Kichwa people.
The Kichwa remain true to the traditional farming techniques practiced by their ancestors. They grow cacao in chakras, or jungle gardens, that incorporate the tree into the existing rainforest. The result is a decadent variety of all-natural cacao, with no deforestation necessary.
Kallari farmers must now travel deeper into the jungle to harvest their plants. This fact – coupled with changing weather conditions making it more difficult to grow cacao in the first place – puts entire communities like the Kallari farmers at risk.
Kallari generates a portion of its revenue from the sale of chocolate bars, but relies mostly on contracts with European distributors for large quantities of wholesale cacao. Without the ability to provide the best price for the cacao, distributors are quick to turn to other sources.
It's not hard to imagine what could come next. Entire regions could be left without any competitive advantage in the (very competitive) global market. Some cacao farmers may even be forced to clear rainforest land to farm other crops. Which would destroy natural habitats and add carbon to the atmosphere, all while losing precious farming traditions in the process.
Many farming families — whose money is already spread very thin — rely on cacao sales as their only source of income. The Fair Trade Foundation, a global leader in workers' rights, states, "ninety percent of the world's cocoa is grown on small family farms by about six million farmers who earn their living from growing and selling cocoa beans."
All that said, we know what you're thinking, "How will I get my chocolate fix in 2050?" The answer is that you might not at all.
In an interview with the Independent, John Mason of the Nature Conservation Research Centre said, "In 20 years, chocolate will be like caviar. It will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won't be able to afford it."
This has many chocolatiers predicting that while chocolate won't necessarily go away entirely, the market may shift from cheaper, more-accessible candies like Hershey bars and Cadbury eggs toward more luxurious chocolates.
Chocoholics: get ready to pay top dollar for what's left of the world's chocolate come 2050 – or perhaps even sooner.
Adapting: The Future of Chocolate
So how can we avoid this chocopocalypse?
Farmers in the Bahia region of Brazil have come up with an innovative solution: the Cacao Cabruca Agroforestry system.
Under this system, cacao trees are planted in the shade of other trees, protecting them from sun, wind, and pests. This technique has been used since the early nineteenth century, but has experienced a surge in popularity due to the rapidly changing climate. In some regions, farmers transplant trees solely for the purpose of providing shade for their cacao.
This system also provides another benefit: it averts deforestation, maintaining the nutrient content of the soil and absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere.
But innovation doesn't stop in Brazil. Farmers in Indonesia are working closely with the Rainforest Alliance to implement practices like this as part of a broader commitment to climate-smart agriculture, or CSA. Climate-smart agriculture is an umbrella term for a variety of agricultural practices, all designed to combat the climate crisis while preserving farms. Some of these include replacing synthetic fertilizers with organic compost, planting cover crops to improve soil health, digging trenches to control erosion, and using natural pesticides.
And the good news is that embracing CSA isn't just good for the planet as a whole – it can also be good for individual famers and their crops. Sustainable techniques that focus on soil health have been shown to improve crop yields as well as plant resilience to numerous climate change impacts.
Meanwhile, back in Ecuador at Kallari Association, tourists can visit el vivero, or the plant nursery, which features an experimental plot of different varieties of cacao. The goal is to find a variety that can withstand warmer, drier conditions.
We know that big problems require big solutions.
Farmers and scientists around the world are putting the most innovative practices in sustainable agriculture to work in the field. But if we're going to save the world's culinary treasures, we must all work together to stop this crisis. Bold, swift action on climate will ensure that many generations to come can enjoy the creamy delight of a chocolate bar.
Want to take action on the climate crisis and do your part to protect the world's chocolate supply and the farmers who provide it? We're here to help.
The Climate Reality Project works around the globe to raise awareness of the climate crisis and inspire bold action in communities everywhere. Get involved in your local community by joining one of our local chapters or sign up for our email list to find out how you can fight the climate crisis and protect the world's culinary delights!
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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