Cacao: A Genetically Modified Organism

The variety of cacao pods seen here helps showcase the abundant biodiversity within the species, and raises questions of how this can be harnessed.

Before humans roamed the Earth, the landscape looked significantly different. Not just the absence of buildings and bipeds, roads and machines, but also aspects which today we might consider a natural part of our world. The plants which we consider to be “nature” very often have been modified from their original forms. These, in a way, were the original Genetically Modified Organisms, their characteristics changed not through playing around with their DNA directly – inserting genes from other organisms, for example – but through artificial selection and selective breeding. Humans realized early that crossing plants with desirable characteristics led to offspring plants with desirable characteristics. From corn to leafy greens to cacao, we have molded aspects of the natural world to accommodate our likes, preferences, and tastes, a fact both fascinating and worrisome – it is important to consider the impacts of past and future modifications to the organisms that provide our foodstuffs, such as cacao. Looking forward, the goals within this scope of human-made modification should be to make cacao growing more sustainable while also realizing that excessive alteration can be harmful.

Many of the ancestors of our modern-day produce are unrecognizable because they differ so substantially from the plants that we are used to seeing. As Professor Martin stated in class, “We’ve been tinkering with plants since we’ve figured out as humans how to do that – to make them taste sweeter, less bitter” (Martin). Corn, especially, has dramatically been stripped of nutritional value in favor of making it taste sweet, and even supposedly healthy foods like spinach are lacking in nutrients when compared against wild plants (Robinson).

Examples of now-common fruits and vegetables in their original forms, prior to human efforts to selectively breed them.

We have been able to select for particular characteristics that we want to emphasize or others that we want to minimize. For example, from a single wild mustard plant we have been able to breed several individual strains that we now see in grocery stores.

Shows the variety of our leafy greens that were in actuality derived from the same wild plant by selecting for different characteristics, and therefore the level to which humans have played a role in creating new strains and varieties, historically a phenomenon that occurred simply through stochastic chance and selective pressures in nature.

Though this may have led to better-tasting food, the issue is that it has also stripped the plants of much of their nutritional value. Overall, I argue that the domestication and selective breeding in which humans have engaged, here in the case of cacao, is representative of the largely unique human ability to significantly change one’s environment. And while this has been beneficial in some ways, namely the cultivation of more edible foods, we have also lost some of the nutritional value of these foods, as evidenced by the corn example. Furthermore, on a larger scale our development of the earth is causing global warming and climate change, which in turn may affect the geographic range of cacao. It is important, then, to consider these biological and ecological aspects to the historical and modern production of cacao, especially as they have bearing on an uncertain future. And as cacao is an especially picky crop to cultivate, it is possible that by 2050, those regions in which cacao is now grown may not be able to sustain such production (Martin). Additionally, cacao is highly susceptible to disease, which has been a “consistent threat [in many areas] since at least the nineteenth century” (Presilla 74).

To combat this threat, growers of cacao have cross-bred varieties in the hopes of producing sturdier strains that will produce more cacao and also be of high quality. Even after early cultivation, those seeking to further “improve” the plant created hybrid trinitario trees – first created by accident in the 18th century – with the goal to “combine the desirable vigor of the forester plant with the superior quality of the criollo bean” – that is, the hardiness of the former with the flavor of the latter, a project that still continues till today (Coe and Coe 26). More recently, in the 1930s and 40s at the Imperial College in Trinidad, in the face of rampant cacao diseases, specifically witches’ brooms disease, healthy cacao were found, tested for resilience, and then crossed, resulting in the “world’s largest germ plasm bank” (Presilla 85).

In the modern day, these efforts to modify cacao continue. This video describes the efforts of IBM, Mars, and the USDA to sequence the cacao genome, with the purpose of identifying ways to make it a more hardy, disease-resistant crop that can be grown with increased ease and reduced effort.

It is clear, then, that such genetic modification could have some benefits – especially as we face a future in which with populations growing and climates changing, we need to secure our food supplies. However, while disease resistance is certainly a beneficial characteristic for cacao to have, those who are engaging in genetic modification, whether by gene transfer or selective breeding, should be cautious and steer clear of the nutrient-deficient pitfalls that have befallen other produce organisms on their way to the grocery store. After all, chocolate is the Food of the Gods and it would not do for such a food to be in any way lacking.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Harrell, Eben. “Chocolate Potentially Made Safe From Climate Change.” Time Magazine15 Sept. 2010. Print.

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.

Robinson, Jo. “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.” New York Times 25 May 2013.

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