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A worker holds a handful of dry cacao beans ready to sell at the Agropampatar chocolate farm Co-op in El Clavo, Venezuela. Photo: Fernando Llano / AP

Around the world, there is a wide variety of trees bearing cacao pods of different sizes, shapes and colors that can be used to produce chocolate. But as The New York Times' Myles Karp explains, only a few cacao types are broadly cultivated, which narrows the gene pool and puts the crop at risk for disease and environmental changes.

Why it matters: These challenges have made cacao less attractive to producers even though demand for chocolate is increasing — that could mean a shortage in the future.

The threats
  • One of the greatest threats to cacao is the development of a fuzzy white fungal coating, called monilia or frosty pod rot. The fungus spread across Costa Rica during the 1980s, and eventually led exports of cacao beans to plummet 96%.
  • "For me, the cacao industry is in permanent risk, because intentionally or unintentionally this disease could be spread in just one flight," said Wilbert Phillips-Mora, head of the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program at C.A.T.I.E. He added that the uptick in global travel and commerce in the developing world has created new avenues for infection.
  • Climate change could affect the ability of plant pathogens to infect plants and make plants more susceptible to infection.
A potential solution
  • Phillips-Mora studied the "most naturally tolerant and productive cacao trees" in the early 1980s, and by 2006 found a way to breed 6 hybrid cacao trees that on average produce about 3 times more than the standard types.
  • One of his hybrids, called C.A.T.I.E.-R6 experiences roughly a 5% frosty pod rot infection rate, compared to 75% for a control variety. C.A.T.I.E. hybrids are now grown in all of Central America, as well as in Mexico and Brazil.
  • The silver lining: "Whatever fungal mutation may arise, wherever drought may strike, however chocolate tastes may change — there will likely be cacao genes somewhere in the collection that can form the basis of new hybrids to meet future challenges," writes Karp.

Go deeper

GOP implosion: Trump threats, payback

Spotted last week on a work van in Evansville, Ind. Photo: Sam Owens/The Evansville Courier & Press via Reuters

The GOP is getting torn apart by a spreading revolt against party leaders for failing to stand up for former President Trump and punish his critics.

Why it matters: Republican leaders suffered a nightmarish two months in Washington. Outside the nation’s capital, it's even worse.

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
4 hours ago - Economy & Business

The limits of Biden's plan to cancel student debt

Data: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax; Chart: Axios Visuals

There’s a growing consensus among Americans who want President Biden to cancel student debt — but addressing the ballooning debt burden is much more complicated than it seems.

Why it matters: Student debt is stopping millions of Americans from buying homes, buying cars and starting families. And the crisis is rapidly getting worse.

Why made-for-TV moments matter during the pandemic

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Erin Schaff-Pool, Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images

In a world where most Americans are isolated and forced to laugh, cry and mourn without friends or family by their side, viral moments can offer critical opportunities to unite the country or divide it.

Driving the news: President Biden's inauguration was produced to create several made-for-social viral moments, a tactic similar to what the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign pulled off during the Democratic National Convention.

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