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February 12th, 2018 / MACH

For people who love sweets, 2018 started on a sour note: Headlines claimed that cacao, the tropical tree whose beans contain the raw ingredients for chocolate, was on the brink of extinction as a result of climate change.

As with many sensational stories, this one turned out to be inaccurate. Cacao trees aren’t going extinct. But a warmer, drier climate in the rain forests of West Africa — the world’s leading producer of cacao — may soon pose a threat to the region’s farmland.

The region’s changing climate also seems to have exacerbated a more immediate threat to the crop’s cultivation: cocoa swollen shoot virus disease, which is spread by a pencil eraser-sized insect known as the mealybug that feeds upon the sap of cacao trees.

The bug seems to thrive as temperatures rise.

“Pests are like the canaries of the mine for climate change,” says Dr. Christian Bunn, a postdoctoral fellow with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Palmira, Colombia. “Their diseases are often the first symptom of climate change.”

Bunn added that there have been previous booms and busts in cacao production. “Brazil was the largest producer until pests weren’t containable anymore, then there was a similar trend in Indonesia,” he said. “The question in West Africa now is: can it be contained?” Read more