Heavy metal as a music genre isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but when there’s some in your cup of hot chocolate, it becomes a public health issue that requires government intervention.
That’s why researchers from the USDA are using genome editing to reduce the amount of cadmium cacao trees in Colombia can absorb from the soil.
The USDA’s Cacao for Peace program, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and assistance from the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, has developed nine genetically engineered cacao lines that should result in chocolate products with less cadmium.
While cadmium can be released through pollution, it is also a natural element found in soil. The carcinogenic heavy metal can cause stomach irritation, diarrhea, and vomiting when consumed in large amounts and lead to an increased risk of kidney diseases and fragile bones, per the CDC.
The project should help boost cacao exports from the South American country to global markets like the U.S., where chocolate is always in high demand. The U.S. imported a world-leading $3.8 billion of chocolate in 2022, nearly $1.2 billion more than the second-highest nation.
Colombia isn’t a global powerhouse in the cacao industry since it grows 50,000 metric tons of beans every year — about 20% of the production in neighboring Ecuador. However, it has the potential to become a leading exporter because of its 2.8 million hectares of land suitable for cacao production.
Other recent scientific advancements in the world of chocolate and climate change include finding a new use for cacao beans as “biochar” to be used in applications like more environmentally friendly concrete and Mars making its packaging more sustainable.
The research toward reducing cadmium seems all the more important when considering Valentine’s Day, since 92% of Americans plan to celebrate the holiday with chocolate or candy, per the National Confectioners Association.
The economic opportunity benefits more than just U.S. chocolate and confectionary industries and American agriculture as well, as the Cacao for Peace initiative supports thousands of Colombian farmers and their families, making it a win-win situation for everyone involved — including the millions of people who will receive chocolate this Valentine’s Day.
Join our free newsletter for easy tips to save more, waste less, and help yourself while helping the planet.