Does Orange Juice Have To Genetically Modify Or Die?

Posted: January 20, 2015 at 11:43 pm

Everybody loves Florida orange juice. Since its emergence in the late 1940s, the sunny beverage has survived hurricanes and anti-sugar diet crazes to become as common on American breakfast tables as scrambled eggs.

But Floridas citrus industry is facing a new existential threat: Citrus greening, a bacterial disease spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, is killing Floridas citrus trees. The disease emerged in 2005 and since then citrus production has slowed. Last year Florida produced only 104.4 million boxes of orangesits lowest in about 30 years.

Researchers and industry experts say they have a potential solution: genetic engineering. Texas A&M University and University of Florida researchers are separately testing GMO citrus. Erik Mirkov, a plant pathologist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center who has been working on solutions to citrus greening for nine years, has developed an approach that uses spinach defensins to strengthen oranges resistance to greening.

Mirkov says if Americans want to keep orange juice on their tables, genetic engineering is the best option. "Greening is in Florida and Brazil, so the two biggest producers of oranges in the world could potentially not be able to grow them anymore," Mirkov says. "In a case like this, its not a nice-to-have, its a must-have."

But will Americans want their OJ with a side of spinach? Thats still up for debate, especially as questions about the safety of GMO foods continue. Opponents say those who want to save the citrus industry need to look elsewhere and explore non-GMO optionssuch as organic growing and using parasites to the kill the citrus psyllidwhich promote sustainable control of the disease. Genetic engineering could be a game-changer for the citrus industry, but it also could be an uphill battle to get GMO oranges from research labs to supermarket shelves to kitchen tables.

Citrus greening is a blow to an already-ailing industry. Orange juice consumption hit an 18-year low this year, and consumers increasingly have more exotic fruit juice options such as acai berry, but lower production also has affected sales.

Citrus greening is undoubtedly part of the problem. Most of the worlds citrus-producing regions, including several Asian countries, Brazil, Florida, Texas and California, have experienced greening. The disease begins in a citrus trees roots, infecting a tree before a grower can do anything to stop it, making an otherwise healthy fruit resemble a weird hybrid of a lime and orange.

"Greening disease has been in the world for a long time. Its been around for as long as it has and we havent found a non-GE cure to date," says Rick Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, the worlds largest supplier of pure Florida orange juice. "Every researcher that is aware of this disease has said the ultimate solution is going to be genetic engineering."

Mirkov and Jude Grosser, a researcher at the University of Florida, agree. Mirkov is working closely with Southern Gardens Citrus, and his approach has been used on the most commonly grown oranges, grapefruits and popular lemon varieties in Texas and Florida. So far, spinach defensins have made many trees resistant to greening and others more tolerant to it, meaning they have the bacteria at lower levels than a conventional citrus tree and can still bear fruit.

Grossers research explores both GMO and conventional breeding approaches. On the GMO side, Grossers team has scoured the plant kingdom to find genes that can be introduced to citrus trees to improve their resistance. Though researchers will need to go through a thorough regulatory process to ensure GMO citrus meets the same standard as the normal fruits, Grosser says only one foreign gene is being added to the plant, so there shouldnt be a significant difference between the two. Whether consumers agree is another issue.

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Does Orange Juice Have To Genetically Modify Or Die?

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