Save our chocolate eggs! Can GMOs help?

As the Easter weekend comes to a close, perhaps youโ€™re in a bit of a chocolate associated coma like me. Chocolate eggs have long been an icon of the celebration and the supermarket shelves have been overflowing with stock for months now with eggs in all different shapes and sizes โ€“ even an avocado shaped Easter egg! But this scrumptious confection of Easter baskets is in trouble and all that chocolate associated indulgence may be coming to an end.

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The demand for chocolate continues to soar globally with the chocolate confectionary market worth around $102 billion dollars! And the UK Food and Drink Federation have estimated than in just a few years time, we will need the equivalent of another million tons of cacao beans to fulfil the demand. Thatโ€™s the equivalent of another Ivory Coast โ€“ the worldโ€™s largest cacao producer! But perhaps science can help save us from a chocoholicโ€™s worst nightmare!

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So why is there a problem?

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree found in those football sized pods that sprout straight out of the trunk.

The โ€˜chocolate treeโ€™ or Theobroma cacao is at risk. Pests, fungal infections and a changing climate threaten cacao crops and the chocolate they produce with yields being a third or less of their potential. And the growing conditions is only set to get worse with wave after wave of fungal disease, each worse than the last; and the weather becoming more and more extreme combined with the trees being painfully slow growers and their reluctance to adapt to other conditions, as it only grows in a belt 20 degrees north or south of the Equator. Sounds like we are destined not to have chocolate!

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Why could making chocolate a GMO help?

Now that scientists have sequenced the genome of the โ€˜chocolate treeโ€™ and found approxaimtely 30,000 genes, they have managed to identify different sequences in the DNA that help them to become resistant to a certain disease or genes that produce different components that make up that chocolate taste we all love so much. This type of information can help scientists to eventually produce a plant that is resistant to the diseases they face and a plant that can grow in these more adverse weather conditions to produce a higher yield.

The thought of changing the DNA in the food we eat though can be a bit of a scary thought! But perhaps it helps, when I tell you that we as a species have been doing this to plants ever since we worked out that selectively breeding two plants with desirable characteristics together will produce offspring with those desirable characteristics. Many of the foods in your diet now probably donโ€™t look the same as their originals. Most of them are unrecognisable. Foods like bananas, carrots, broccoli, sweetcorn and watermelon. In the case of sweetcorn, humans were selectively crossing them to have a sweeter taste at the expense of some nutritional value.

Now while these foods are not genetically modified in terms of changing or adding a small piece of DNA manually, their DNA has changed as a result of cross breeding. The advantage of genetic modification is why can make slightly more complicated changes such as disease resistance. But both want to produce plants with desirable characteristics so perhaps it is not as scary as you think.

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Creating the ideal GMO chocolate is not going to be easy though. That simple chocolate bar you munched on last is actually a mind-bogglingly complex food containing about 600 different flavour components โ€“ thatโ€™s 400 more than red wine! So, mixing the right flavour combination with the ability to become resistant to disease, help it grow quicker and yield more seeds to meet the chocolate demand might prove to be a heroic task!

But amongst this super high demand and the cacao treeโ€™s environmentally dicey future, it might be the only way to save our chocolate if we donโ€™t want it to become super rare and as expensive as caviar!!

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How do you feel about GMOs? Particularly genetically modified food? Would you still eat chocolate if it was genetically modified? Or perhaps you just want to know more about GMOs? Ask me your questions in the comments below ๐Ÿ™‚

Science love.

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