Envisioning a Future for Cacao Amidst a Changing Climate

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Growing solutions

As one UC Davis researcher explores the socio-economic aspects of cacao production, others are conducting long-term research at the university to explore genetic aspects of cacao production.

Growing cacao can be a delicate process, said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Senior Fellow in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department and chief agricultural officer at Mars, Incorporated.

“There are pests and diseases in some parts of the world that can kill the crop in two or three years,” Shapiro said. These problems become worse with climate change.

Intermittent temperature change can determine the fate of an entire season’s cacao crop, Shapiro said. The bean is also prone to a litany of diseases and viruses, with ominous names like frosty pod and swollen shoot virus.

No one knows how, or if, cacao can thrive in an environment impacted by climate change, said adjunct UC Davis professor and plant geneticist David Mackill.

“I haven’t found many people who don’t like chocolate, so I think there is going to be a continued demand for cacao,” Mackill said. The question is: will the cacao supply continue to be there?

Mackill and other plant experts at UC Davis are researching the answers to that question. They seek to improve cacao’s resiliency in areas impacted by climate change and drought, Mackill said. They hope to develop ways of ensuring cacao’s long-term production in ways that would also benefit farmers.

Cacao forms the backbone for several countries’ economies, Shapiro said, with some 6.5 million smallholders growing the crop worldwide. Inconsistent rainfall totals and erratic temperatures due to climate change reverberate throughout the entire sector.

After 10 years of observing the effects of climate change on cacao crops, Shapiro believes scientists are now better equipped to address the issue.

“We’re supposed to be guardians of (cacao),” Shapiro said. “We’ve raised the conversation to a point where there is a recognition the word ‘sustainable’ may not be the best word anymore; we need to have a resilient crop.”

Mackill and other UC Davis researchers address cacao production through major programs that address better soil, pest and disease management, as well as better breeding techniques to develop new strains of cacao that tolerate adverse climatic effects such as drought and higher temperatures.

“It depends on genetic variability in the species that we can use to develop new strains of cacao,” Mackill said.

Mackill and his colleagues will be able to develop new cacao strains to improve resilience to disease and climate change with the addition of five new state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities coming to UC Davis in 2019 and plans to build several more in the coming years. Some strains of cacao seem more naturally predisposed to tolerate higher temperatures than others, Mackill said.

UC Davis breaks ground on new advanced greenhouses
From left: Helene Dillard, dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Howard Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Mars, Inc.; distinguished UC Davis professor and plant geneticist David Mackill and Jim Carrol, Associate Vice Chancellor for Design & Construction Management look forward to construction of new greenhouses where researchers can cacao under any number of climatic conditions. (UC Davis)

“The real measure of drought tolerance is to actually compare the performance of different strains in the field condition under drought stress,” Mackill said.

Shapiro and Mackill expect that these greenhouses will start new conversations with scientists and farmers from all over the world about how the crop is grown, where and by whom.

“This conversation is then not a factorial of ‘twice as good,’ it’s ten-times as good to have that many eyes on it.” Shapiro said. “The ability to have that conversation is core to why we are on this campus.”