CRISPR Cocoa: The Wrong Solution to a Very Real Problem

crispr gene editing - author: Julie McMurry

CRISPR cocoa: it sounds like it might be a new chocolate bar with tasty, crunchy bits, but it’s not. CRISPR (pronounced “crisper” and short for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats”) is an updated gene-editing technology, the same process used to edit the genomes of twin babies recently born in China. Promoted as newer, faster, and more precise than traditional GMO technology, there is growing buzz to use CRISPR technology to solve the current crisis in cocoa. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong solution to a very real problem.

Cocoa in Crisis

You’ve probably seen a headline proclaiming that cocoa will go extinct by 2050. It sounds alarmist, but, unfortunately, those headlines are probably not too far off base. Low prices and climate change are threatening the livelihoods of some 2 million West African cocoa farmers who grow 70% of the world’s cacao. Increased temperatures and erratic climatic conditions in the tropical “cocoa belt” are making cocoa production increasingly vulnerable to pests and disease.  Some farmers are losing upwards of 30-50% of their crop each harvest season.

Add to that the fact that cocoa prices are historically incredibly volatile, fluctuating wildly from season to season at the whims of a distant commodity market. From 2016 to 2017 cocoa prices plunged by 1/3. Yet even as the price for their crop plummets, farmers’ costs continue to go up. Climate change is increasing pest and disease pressure on stressed plants. Ongoing low prices and price volatility mean that many farmers have lacked the resources to invest in their farms over the years and now have aging trees and declining soil health, further cutting into their yields.

Cocoa farming is hard work. And for all that, farmers earn less than $0.80/day, and, by some estimates, as little as $0.45/day. Earnings that low leave farmers no money to hire workers, in turn forcing children to work to help bring in the crop or add to the families’ earnings.

The “extinction” that headlines speak of is not a meteor hitting the industry at some point a few decades down the road. The crisis is happening now.

How did we get here?

Low prices and exploitation are not new in West African cocoa production. Forced labor on cocoa plantations goes all the way back to the 1800s and cocoa plantations grew up side by side with the transatlantic slave trade. Read a little of the history and you’ll even recognize names like William Cadbury from today’s chocolate brands.

Today, the chocolate trade is largely controlled by just a few big companies (Mars, Hershey’s, Nestle*, Barry Callebaut, and Mondelez). They have long benefited (and profited) from the low prices that have impoverished farmers and fueled deforestation. Last year, as cocoa farmers’ prices fell by 1/3, Barry Callebaut’s profits jumped 12%. Major cocoa buyers have made declarations to reduce deforestation in their cocoa supply chains with the launch of the “Cocoa and Forests Initiative.” Major chocolate companies signed the Harkin-Engel protocol pledging to end child labor in cocoa. Yet, almost two decades later, child labor rates have increased, and its signatories keep pushing off the deadline to clean up their supply chains. Deforestation continues across West Africa.

The 2018 Cocoa Barometer report sums up the problem quite clearly:

“Almost all of the current efforts to increase farmer income are based on technical solutions…However, the challenges facing the cocoa sector are often not technical, but deal with power and political economy, such as price formation, the asymmetrical bargaining power of farmers, unbridled market concentration of multinationals, and a lack of transparency and accountability.”

CRISPR Cocoa: A Solution or Just Another Problem?

Cocoa Pod
“Cacao-pod” – Keith Weller, USDA ARS – ID K4636-14

Instead of paying farmers fair prices and supporting their ability to invest in their farms, several of the big chocolate corporations are backing a new idea: CRISPR cocoa. Mars is in fact so enamored of the idea that they’ve invested approximately $1 billion in research.  CRISPR technology allows scientists to manipulate cocoa genes, silencing or enhancing specific cocoa genes. The argument is that it will reduce the plant’s susceptibility to pest and diseases. Yet the reality is more complicated.

CRISPR technology, like GMOs, is a top-down approach. Cocoa farmers are already struggling, and power in the cocoa industry is already concentrated in just a few companies. Adding potential intellectual property and control struggles to that imbalance seems like the opposite of a solution. One only need look to the words of a senior VP of Driscoll’s Berries, as quoted in the New Yorker, to see how that plays out for farmers (the ones growing their patented strawberry strains):

“Growers are sort of like our manufacturing plants…We make the inventions, they assemble it, and then we market it, so it’s not that dissimilar from Apple using someone else to do the manufacturing but they’ve made the invention and marketed the end product.”

In this model, farmers are just cogs in the larger system. Perfectly bred plants solve the company’s problem of continuing to grow cacao. It doesn’t solve the farmer’s problem of continuing to make a living.

Further, research shows that biodiverse farms are more resilient in a changing climate. CRISPR cocoa means more genetically identical crops, and more monocultures—the last thing our climate crisis needs.

Agroforestry and Fair Trade: Paths towards Truly Sustainable Cocoa

CRISPR cocoa would hand the future of cocoa over to the big cocoa companies and a few scientists. Yet around the globe, small-scale farmers and researchers have been working on other solutions. They are diverse. They are community-led. They tackle the cocoa crisis as the multifold crises that it is.

Recent studies have discovered that cocoa grown under shade in agroforestry systems can reduce pest populations while creating habitat for natural pest predators. Around the globe, small-scale farmers are intercropping their cacao trees with other trees that can provide diverse sources of income.  Grown as a part of a diverse community-led agroforestry system, cocoa may hold the key for small-scale farmers to tackle poverty, become climate resilient, cope with volatile market prices, and restore and protect rainforests. Imagine if Mars was willing to invest $1 billion dollars in that.

Raw Cocoa Beans
Cacao Beans (Credit: Isai Symens CC-BY-SA-4.0 )


*Nestle recently shrunk a little by selling their U.S. confectionery business to Ferraro Group.

Banner Photo Credit: Cacao Beans – Ivory Coast – “African people at work” KokoDZ CC-BY-SA-4.0  


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