Is Chocolate Really Going Extinct?

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cacao plantIf your news feed looks anything like mine, it is often full of different takes from across a variety of news outlets all covering a similar topic. Lately, the science news has been full of stories about the impending extinction of the cacao plant, a plant which, of course, has the extremely important job of providing us with chocolate.

But is there really cause for alarm? A little more digging shows that many, if not all, of the articles related to the surge of warnings of the ability of climate change to wipe out chocolate as we know it link back to a single article written for a news outlet. In other words, not an original research article.

This sort of reliance on one single article is usually a recipe for trouble, especially if that article is an interpretation of someone else’s results and not the results themselves. Even in research, however, scientists will always draw from multiple sources or repeat experiments multiple times. Good original research articles will always place their new results into context of what is already known.

Here at Everyday Einstein we have even discussed similar instances where various news sources have promoted a catchy headline that doesn’t fully or accurately represent the original source of information. For example, while investigating a series of articles claiming that scientists had determined the best time of day to drink your coffee, I found the news outlets all pointed back to a blog post by a neuroscience PhD student who was simply musing about potential future research areas. So while gleaning maximum alertness from my coffee sounds amazing, and there was nothing wrong or incorrect about the original source, the follow-up articles presented what appeared to be an evidence-based conclusion but was really more of a hypothesis.

So what about that original chocolate article that caused such stir? The article’s title alone, “Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years,” is strongly foreboding and makes me want to immediately eat all of the chocolate in my house. Just in case.

The article further states that “cacao plants are slated to disappear by as early as 2050 thanks to warmer temperatures and dryer weather conditions.”

The main research-based citation in the article appears to be an article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a story which itself is a summary of some of the cacao-related results presented in the 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Both the NOAA article and the IPCC report are well-researched, trustworthy sources.

However, while both provide strong warnings about the affects of changing temperatures on crops like cacao, neither threaten cacao extinction. If there is such a study, it is not cited. The future of cacao crops described for the year 2050 by the cited sources instead includes the fact that “rising temperatures will push the suitable cacao cultivation areas uphill” and the unfortunate reality that 89.5% of the cacao production sites studied by the report’s authors are predicted to be “less suitable.”

Climate change poses a security risk, both for individuals and for nations, and thus needs to be taken seriously. But sounding the alarm before the evidence is firmly in place can weaken trust in evidence-based results when they are more firmly understood. However, the article in question does present some truly interesting facts about the sustainability of chocolate in the era of climate change. They are just unfortunately hidden behind a misleading title.

Let’s look at four more straightforward chocolate facts—from both the original NOAA article and the highly cited news article—that are just as interesting.

1. Cacao trees can only be grown in a very narrow strip of latitudes.

In order to thrive and produce the chocolate we love to eat, cacao trees require steady temperatures, high humidity, lots of rain, little wind, and soil rich in nutrients like nitrogen. All of these conditions are only met within ~20 degrees of the equator (either to the north or south). Thus, more than half of the world’s chocolate is made by just two countries: Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, with Indonesia being another leading producer. These countries are predicted to see a temperature increase as high as nearly four degrees (Fahrenheit) or two degrees (Celsius) which will undoubtedly affect their crops.