Can CRISPR counter the Cocoa Crisis?

Cocoa is a highly valued commodity that has been cultivated in the Amazon and Orinoco River regions for three millennia.  The Spanish encouraged the planting of cocoa throughout its colonies, but this was fraught with difficulties due to the very specific climatic conditions required for successful cropping, namely high ambient temperatures and reliable rainfall, as well as its susceptibility to pest and disease. It therefore took a significant portion of the 16th century before it had become more widespread across Central and South America and the Caribbean1. It wasn’t until the 19th century that cocoa was successfully grown in West African and Southeast Asian territories.  Today, Ivory Coast and Ghana account for up to 75% of the world’s cocoa2. This part of world, along with Indonesia, the third largest producing territory, will lose considerable swathes of suitable cultivation land as a result of climate change, creating a potential cocoa crisis.

Cocoa is however under considerable threat, primarily, due to its environmental sensitivity.  The tree itself is vulnerable to viruses and fungal diseases, which can devastate whole plantations, and now climate change is further increasing pressure on estates. As global temperatures rise, and the equatorial environment becomes drier, the warm and wet conditions that are essential for this crop will be lost.

The key-players in the cocoa supply chain are actively engaging in wide-ranging initiatives that will help avert this cocoa crisis.  It is worth noting that this is not a simple ‘one- size-fits-all-solution’ as the challenges are complex; climate change, deforestation and disease susceptibility are significant issues but with different impacts depending on the growing location.

Active collaborations include The Accountability Framework Initiative (AFi), a global environmental coalition formed in 2019, aiming to end deforestation in commodity supply chains through sustainability best-practices3. Six of the largest stake-holders in the cocoa supply-chain are engaged in implementing the recommendations. 

Cocoa thrives in the shade, so inter-planting is essential and deforestation, ironically, driven by the expansion of cocoa plantations, can have a detrimental impact on cocoa harvests.  The Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI) has been driving its agenda to end deforestation since 2017, again with the support of many influential cocoa companies, through its ‘plant back better‘ campaign4.

New Breeding Technologies

The original cocoa trees grew in excess of 10m, but over generations of selective breeding this is now a more manageable and harvestable 3.5m.  This, however, is a long and costly process and New Breeding Technologies (NBTs) are being developed to provide a range of rapid and highly controllable ways to generate desirable crop traits which could begin to address some of the issues discussed.

One of the leading NBTs is CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a cheaper, faster, and easier to use gene-editing tool6  which was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. These ‘molecular scissors’ utilise enzyme technology (cas9) to accelerate changes within the plant to develop desirable traits.  As CRISPR technology does not introduce any new genetic material, the resulting plants are not considered to be genetically modified in many countries.

Research activity is identifying and designing superior crop traits to meet the disease resistance, changing environmental conditions, nutritional and quantitative food demands of the future5.  The high precision nature of the process ensures that no off-target effects will occur6.  In effect, CRISPR-cas9 simply accelerates genetic alterations which could be achieved naturally over time, without the introduction of foreign DNA. 

Low Hanging Fruit

In some cases, CRISPR allows the recovery of traits that were lost during traditional selective breeding.  Alternatively, specific traits can be selected that are beneficial to the needs of modern climate, farming and nutrition.  Traits that are actively being researched include plant architecture, where ‘bushier’ plants with lower hanging fruit will reduce the harvest labour-intensity and enable greater automation, improving plantation efficiency and profitability. Smaller, more productive trees would also be easier to shade in de-forested areas, allowing healthier trees and subsequent crops to develop.

Cocoa trees typically reach maturity and produce fruit within 6 years, and CRISPR-cas9 Cocoa research is focusing on cocoa-plant juvenility, enabling trees to produce crops at an earlier stage – potentially within 2 years. 

There is also the opportunity to develop more consumer-led changes, with desirable nutrition traits, such as caffeine-free cocoa.

The positive impact of CRISPR-cas9

Cocoa is a high-risk crop, vulnerable to a wide range of environmental factors, so action needs to be taken to ensure that it has a commercial future. Not only is it the core of one of the world’s most popular products, it provides economic stability to whole communities throughout Africa, The Caribbean, Central and South America, and its loss would be devastating. 

Genetic-Modification has received considerable scrutiny and has presented philosophical challenges when introduced to the food chain.  It could now, however, be considered to have been an important stepping stone to CRISPR-cas9 which presents a real opportunity to positively impact vulnerable crops in a climate-critical world. These CRISPR-cas9 gene-edited crops have the promise to be climate-resilient, more resistant to disease, super-nutritious and ‘mechanized harvest-ready’.

With the evolution of proven CRISPR-cas9 platform technologies, specific crop traits can be developed quickly and efficiently and be available for commercialization within two years.  This will only be achieved by close partnerships between biotech companies who are pioneering innovative CRSIPR-cas9 techniques, and cocoa and chocolate companies with a desire to make a difference to avoid the cocoa crisis.

Food Industry Experts, The Aurora Ceres Partnership Ltd, is currently working within the Biotech community and has direct access to proven, leading-edge CRISPR-cas9 platform technology that can help the chocolate and cocoa industry adopt gene-editing strategies to address the big challenges ahead. Contact us for more.

1 – Cocoa and Chocolate Manual- ADM Cocoa 2013.

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4 – Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI) plant back better

5-  Gene editing could save Ghana’s cocoa from extinction. (2019)