Published on: 16:22PM Sep 18, 2013
By Carol Keiser: Belleair, Florida
Imagine a world without orange juice.
Heck, I can’t even imagine a morning without this delicious drink. It’s been a sunrise ritual for as long as I can remember, for me as well as my children.
I was one of those mean moms: I wouldn’t let my kids drink soda. Yet they could gulp gallon after gallon of orange juice. Now my grandchildren are receiving the same treatment. They drink orange juice all the time and love it.
What if it disappears from our diets? That would be a very unfortunate development.
Orange juice not only tastes great, but it’s also an excellent source of nutrition. Its vitamin C boosts our immune systems—especially important now, with school back in session—and also serves as a catalyst for other vitamins and minerals. They do a better job simply because they’re able to work in conjunction with orange juice.
I am clearly not the only one who knows this: About 7 in 10 American homes buy orange juice. The New York Times recently described its popular image: "the ultimate natural beverage, fresh-squeezed from a primordial fruit."
Yet we could be on the verge of losing this important drink. Orange groves across Florida, which produces the vast majority of our country’s orange juice, have fallen sick. A disease called citrus greening has ravaged them.
Citrus greening is a bacterial disease that probably originated in China a century ago. It has spread around the planet because of the psyllid, a louse-like insect that sucks tree sap. (It "looks like a cicada’s ugly little sister," according to USA Today.) As these bugs travel from leaf to leaf, they disperse bacteria that devastate orange groves. The trees lose their color and their fruit becomes salty and bitter. For all practical purposes, they’re inedible.
Florida’s orange production varies from year to year, but overall it has dropped sharply—and it could vanish entirely if citrus greening isn’t stopped.
Despite a broad, desperate global search, no member of the citrus family shows any resistance to the bacteria, so conventional breeding methods won’t offer help. Although pesticides can slow down the disease, the trees themselves are essentially defenseless.
"The industry that made Florida," warns Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, "is totally threatened."
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for citrus greening—unless chopping down entire orchards and moving to a new location counts as a cure.
There may be no cure, but perhaps there’s a solution: biotechnology.
Scientists believe they have discovered a way to save our orange juice. It involves taking a gene from spinach, one of the world’s healthiest plants, and inserting it into orange trees. It won’t make our juice taste like spinach—sorry, Popeye—but it may save this excellent morning beverage from virtual extinction.
We won’t know for a few years. Greenhouse tests are promising and field trials are ongoing. Orange growers are optimistic that they’ll finally beat the bacteria.
This is the same basic technology that already has revolutionized agriculture from the cornfields of Illinois to the papaya farms of Hawaii. Around the world, millions of farmers have harvested more than 3 billion acres of genetically modified crops that carry a natural resistance to weeds and pests.
As a result, we’re growing more food on less land than ever before—an incredible benefit for both productivity and the environment.
If biotechnology moves into the orange groves, we’ll save one of our favorite drinks. We’ll save more than that, too, because we do more with oranges than merely extract their juice. Their peels and pulp go into everything from feeding livestock to scenting candles.
Pork producers like to boast about their efficiency, bragging that they use every part of the pig except the squeal. Orange growers might say that they use every part of the orange except the squeeze.
So the defeat of citrus greening will help us save a favorite drink as well as keep prices in check on other consumer goods. Jobs are at stake as well: 76,000 in Florida’s $9-billion orange industry.
I don’t want to think about a world without orange juice. Let’s hope that biotechnology comes to the rescue.