In 2005, Florida’s famous orange groves were hit with a serious disease. Citrus greening is caused by a bacterium known as Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, which is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect. The disease is spread when an infected psyllid feeds on the greenery of an orange tree. Affected orange trees produce oranges that are small, sour, and green. So far, 2.5 million Florida orange trees have been infected, and subsequently chopped down and burned. Neither this procedure nor the extensive pesticide spraying in attempt to eradicate the psyllid have been effective in stopping the spread of the disease.
The search for an orange tree species with immunity to the citrus greening disease also proved unfruitful, no pun intended. It seems that the only remaining option, if the orange industry is going to survive, is to splice DNA from another species equipped with a gene to fight off the Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacteria. With good reason, many Floridians are pushing for the creation of a GM orange. The $9 billion orange industry supplies 76,000 jobs.
Before a GM orange can be stocked in your local grocery store there are several obstacles to overcome. The project will be expensive and lengthy, possibly taking up to a decade to complete. Then, once the trees are created, they must mature in the lab for two years until they are strong enough to be planted outside. Once planted, it will take another few years for the trees to produce fruit.
The other issue is public opinion. Many are reluctant to accept the proof that GMOs aren’t dangerous, and worry about undetected risks. Anti-GMO advocates have created a strong negative association between GMOs and Monsanto. The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms once caused Zambia to refuse a shipment of GM corn during a famine.
Although hundreds of scientific studies have proven that genetically modified foods are no more dangerous to eat than non-GM foods, polls show that anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of Americans wouldn’t drink GM orange juice. Now, despite the consensus of consulting scientists that genetic modification is the only thing that can save the Florida orange, the fear of consumer rejection is holding Florida growers back from making the leap to commission a GM orange.
Dr. Dawson at the University of Florida recently succeeded in temporarily genetically modifying orange trees using grafting to fight off the citrus greening bacteria. This will hopefully tide the industry over until a permanent solution is established. And, with any luck, the misinformation surrounding genetic modification will be remedied.