Hurricane Irma destroyed half of Florida’s citrus crop when it tore through the state earlier this month, as we reported earlier this month. The state’s orange growers at the time described the damage from the storm as the worst they’d seen in their lifetimes, as we reported at the time.
Many of the affected groves of oranges and grapefruits were approaching harvest, too – and their destruction helped send the price of orange concentrate futures rocketing higher.
Unfortunately for Florida’s citrus growers, the damage caused by Irma exacerbated declining output caused by an epidemic of “citrus greening” that’s in its twelfth year. The state’s increasingly exasperated farmers are now facing an unprecedented squeeze, the Wall Street Journal reports, as damage caused by the storm disrupted research into a genetically modified, greening-resistant orange tree.
Farmers believe that modifying orange trees to make them resistant to greening is vital for the long-term survival of one of Florida’s most iconic industries (as WSJ points out, oranges appear on Florida license plates). Greening first emerged in the state back in 2015, and is believed to be caused by tiny disease carrying insects that were first introduced when farmers purchased orange trees from Asia back in 2004.
Against this backdrop is intensifying competition from orange growers in Brazil, who are trying to horn in on the US orange-juice market (most of Florida’s oranges are processed into orange juice, while Oranges grown in California are eaten.
“…Hurricane Irma this month hit a direct blow on Florida’s citrus groves, knocking 50% of developing oranges off trees across the state, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Trees with roots already weakened by greening were sitting in 4 feet of water in some of Florida’s southern areas earlier this month. During the storm, nurseries quarantined to keep out the disease lost roofs, and scientific laboratories working on anti-greening projects lost power, potentially compromising research years in the making.
A disease called “citrus greening” is pushing Florida’s orange juice industry toward the brink of collapse. Greening starts at the leaves and works its way through the tree like a hardening of the arteries, blocking nutrients and water. Oranges drop off branches unripe and unusable. This year’s crop will likely be the smallest since the 1940s.
So miserable is the condition of Florida’s orange industry that farmers are banking on inventing a genetically engineered orange that will be ready for sale—at the earliest—in 2022.”
The secret grove—1.5 acres of knee-high trees created with a spinach gene scientists hope can defend against the disease—is down an unmarked road and behind locked gates. Visitors are logged; the company requested photographs taken by a reporter offer no clues to the grove’s location.
“We’re a bunch of scientists sitting on 12,000 acres and a giant orange juice plant we need to use,” said Tim Eyrich, vice president of research and commercialization at Southern Gardens Citrus, the company developing the engineered fruit. “If this collapses, all your orange juice comes from Brazil.”
Greening, which affects all citrus fruits, has caused Florida’s orange output to decline by roughly half over the past decade, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Revenue and jobs in the citrus sector are each down by about a third in the past three years. The state’s industry recorded revenue of $9 billion in 2016. Falling production has helped drive a roughly 50% increase in the price of orange juice sold on grocery store shelves. Meanwhile. Brazil has stepped up orange production, threatening to crush the industry in Florida. Brazil’s larger groves and different practices have helped control the spread of greening. The USDA estimates that Brazil’s total output of orange juice will rise 55% this year from last year, with exports rising 28%. Brazil’s production lead over the US has doubled since around 2003.
The situation is growing so dire that Brant Schirard, a citrus grower along Florida’s eastern belt told WSJ that growers are already starting to give up on orange farming, choosing instead to diversify into blueberries, peaches, hops and pineapples, among other crops. Across the state, about 130,000 acres of citrus have been abandoned because of greening. Back in 1977, the state boasted 53 orange juice processing plants. Today there are only seven.
As if the intensifying foreign competition and rampant disease weren’t enough, sales of orange juice have weakened dramatically as Americans seek to avoid sugar, and increasingly don’t sit down for breakfast. Orange-juice sales have declined 48% since 2005.
Even as consumers have become increasingly wary of genetically modified foods, researchers in the state are experimenting with a few different methods to cultivate trees that are immune to greening.
“Since 2009, the USDA has invested more than $400 million to study resistant plants, pesticides and other chemicals to attack the disease.
The technology Southern Gardens is using, developed by Texas A&M University, inserts a gene that is a part of the immune system of spinach into the genetic structure of an orange. The modified cells grown in a lab eventually shoot out roots and are planted in soil and develop into trees. The project is among Florida’s most promising efforts for a cure, even though the trees are still five years away from producing fruit.
The company is also experimenting with adding a spinach gene to a harmless virus naturally living inside the “phloem”—the vascular system of the tree—without affecting the genes of the tree itself.
It’s a yearslong process. Scientists wait for psyllids to come to the grove naturally to infect the trees, and then see if they are resistant to greening. “All it takes is one hurricane and you’re back to square one,” said Michael Rogers, director of the Citrus Research and Education Center at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.”
To summarize, farmers may one day look back on Irma as the storm that killed Florida’s citrus industry. But regardless of whether Brazil threatens to undermine domestic producers, it’s nothing that a 35% tariff approved by President Donald Trump - who, we imagine, would be eager to burnish his reputation as a friend to American industry, especially in a crucial swing state like Florida.