Flu season is upon us—and countless Americans are reaching for orange juice. They’re hoping its abundance of vitamin C will help them stay healthy, or at least using the drink to soothe sore throats.
But what if orange juice disappeared completely?
This question haunts Florida’s orange growers. Just as we’re struggling to keep our bodies healthy, they’re trying to help their trees resist a terrible disease called “citrus greening.” It threatens to wipe out the state’s oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit.
Working with researchers, the citrus growers may have come up with a creative solution that involves biotechnology. One of America’s great nutritional traditions—a glass of orange juice in the morning—could depend on the success of their plans, plus the approval of regulators and ultimately, consumers.
Earlier this month, I toured orange groves in south central Florida to learn more about citrus greening. Because of the disease, healthy citrus trees in the area have become hard to find. Bugs and bacteria, originally suspected from China, have caused the ailment to spread almost everywhere. There is not a single orange grove in Florida that is not infected.
It doesn’t take a citrus expert to spot sick trees. Their leaves are sparse rather than dense. You can see right through their foliage to what’s on the other side. The color of the leaves is wrong as well. Rather than the vibrant green of springtime, it’s the worn-out green of autumn. Moreover, healthy trees cling to their fruit, while the sick ones let them drop to the ground.
Infected trees can produce oranges for juicing, and citrus greening does not affect human health. Yet it has ravaged the industry that surrounds the Sunshine State’s signature agricultural product as well as the tens of thousands of people who grow, pack, and ship oranges and orange juice.
Since citrus greening showed up about a decade ago, Florida’s orange production has fallen by about half—and if it falls much more, the citrus business may become economically unsustainable. Our oranges won’t come from Florida anymore.
More than orange juice is at stake. After squeezing, a lot of the leftover pulp becomes feed for my cattle—not only is it good for them, but it allows us to use citrus in multiple ways. Nothing goes to waste, in accordance with the principles of sustainable agriculture.
Growers have tried to fight citrus greening in every way imaginable. They’ve scoured the planet for varieties of citrus with natural resistance. They’ve studied wasps from Pakistan that hunt the insects that carry the disease. They’ve even built special heated tents to keep the trees healthy.
For years, nothing seemed to work. Citrus greening kept on leaping from tree to tree and grove to grove. It looked unstoppable.
Then the industry turned to biotechnology. Seeing how genetic modification had improved farming in other parts of the country, it wondered whether the same tools of modern science might help Florida citrus survive. Then, a few years ago, researchers in Texas discovered that by inserting genes from spinach plants into citrus trees, the citrus trees became more resistant to citrus greening.
As of today, there are no research results or indication that citrus greening can be solved without genetically improved citrus trees. Science and technology are needed to save the citrus industry. This is a necessity – not just a ‘niceity’.
What happens next remains unclear. The technology could receive a first step in commercial approval this year, giving ordinary farmers in the near future a tool that holds the potential to save Florida’s oranges. This will require an involved decision from regulators. They will need to make a decision based on sound science, not the scientific illiteracy that has caused some people to demand special warning labels on food with GM ingredients.
The next step involves consumer acceptance. Will people drink orange juice that comes from genetically modified trees? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t: We eat GM food every day and we’ve been doing it for years.
Will spinach save oranges? There’s something almost poetic about this solution, as two excellent sources of nutrition join together, keeping us well fed and healthy.
Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. She volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology board member (www.truthabouttrade.org).
Note – this piece first appeared Feb 11 in the Orlando Sentinel.