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Florida Citrus Fights Back Against Greening

The last twelve months have not been kind to the Florida citrus industry, as it appears to be beset with an unending barrage of bad news. From lowered production numbers to the ever-present threat of the Asian citrus psyllid and the greening disease it carries, growers in the region have a lot to fear. However, recent news may buck this year-long trend.

Regular readers of the Food Institute Blog already know that Florida citrus isn’t having it’s best year. USDA even dropped the forecast for Florida orange production this year below 100 million boxes for the first time in 49 years. Some Florida growers are even contemplating planting new crops, including almonds, in order to remain profitable as citrus prices and volumes lag.

According to a report published Oct. 21 by the Florida Department of Citrus, the harvest for the state’s signature fruit could drop all the way to 27 million boxes by 2026, representing an 82% drop from the 149.8 million boxes produced in 2005, which was the year that citrus greening was first found in the state. The economic impact, according to the University of Florida, is already massive, totaling industry losses of $7.8 billion and more than 7,500 jobs between 2006 to 2014.

Although citrus greening is no doubt a debilitating disease for the industry, growers in the region have two reasons for hope.

Microbiologist Nian Wang is bringing a cutting edge weapon to the war against citrus greening. By using genetic modification known widely by its acronym, “clustered regularly interspaced short pallindromic repeats” (CRISPR, pronounced crisper) could prove to be the secret weapon against citrus greening. The technology would allow for accurate genetic modifications to protect against the disease without the long timeline associated with traditional plant breeding.

In a separate study, scientists appear to have found the gene responsible for enhanced resistance as well. Researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences were able to use a gene from a plant that’s a member of the mustard family to create new citrus trees that are also resistant to the disease. The experiment resulted in trees that exhibited enhanced resistance to greening, reduced disease severity and even several trees that remained disease-free after 36 months after being in a field with diseased trees.

Although the industry is contending with challenges never before seen in the region, growers, packers, scientists and elected officials are fighting citrus greening with all of their might. Nature may have thrown them a curveball, but I expect researchers and scientists will find a solution that ensures Florida oranges remain in supermarkets across the nation.