Picture this: It’s Valentine’s Day, and you head out to buy some pralines. Except you can’t find any. No matter which store you visit, gummy bears and hard candy have taken the place on the shelves where the chocolate hearts used to be.

Researchers warn that this scenario could become reality sooner than you might think.

About 70 percent of the world’s production of cocoa — chocolate’s main ingredient — comes from just six small countries of West Africa, where a blight disease that kills cacao trees is spreading rapidly, causing decline and death in some trees in less than one year after infection occurs. In its wake, the livelihood of farmers is at stake and rainforest is lost as growers expand their plantations to compensate for losses.

“There is almost no knowledge about who and where the enemy is — let alone what actions are needed to ensure the longevity of the crop in the region for the short and long terms,” says Judy Brown, a plant virologist at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who is working with African scientists and farmers to create greater awareness and develop ways to combat this disease.

“The impact on farmers and their families in terms of health, food security and sociopolitical aspects is dire, and continues to be, as the rapid tree decline outbreak affects more and more trees.”

Chocolate’s Worst Enemy

Little is known about the pathogen — especially its diversity — other than it being a virus that infects cacao plants and is transmitted by mealybugs, small insects that feed on the tree sap. Unlike most other major crops, which have been backed by a history of research to make them more productive, better adapted to environmental stresses and more resistant to disease, cacao essentially is still a wild plant largely neglected by research and improvement programs, including badly needed epidemiological studies to guide management, Brown says.

“This has resulted in a situation that is like going to the doctor and being told, ‘Sorry, we have no way to test your blood, so we can’t tell you whether you ate something poisonous or you’re just lacking vitamins,'” she says.

Read more at the University of Arizona