GM organges may be the only ones left after the orange blight

True or False: Drinking a glass of Florida orange juice is one of the healthiest ways to start your day.

Okay, well it’s kind of a trick question because you may not be able to drink orange juice much longer, unless you have a secret stash of it somewhere. Insects throughout Florida orange crops are spreading a devastating bacterial blight, commonly called “greening.”

Calling it the most serious disease Florida orange growers have ever seen, the USDA and other scientific agencies say the only feasible way of preventing spread of the disease may be through genetic modification of the oranges.

Florida’s citrus farms are on the decline as a result of the blight, dropping acreage to levels not seen since the 1960’s, with fears that such low yields could force processing plants and manufacturers of orange products to simply shut down, impacting thousands, if not millions of jobs.

Psyllids, the insects responsible for the blight, are being targeted by infected tree removal and an increased use of pesticides, but the disease often goes years before being visible, making it too late to treat.

With the bacterium that causes the citrus greening lethal, the U.S. government labeled it as a potential bio-terrorist threat, making scientific research on how to control its spread virtually impossible. Now it may be too late to prevent a full on blight from wiping out the entire state’s orange crops (in a similar scenario, the U.S. has never recovered from the chestnut blight of 1904).

Though there’s no guarantee that genetically modified oranges will be able to sustain long-term resistance to greening, many scientists see it as the most viable option, which brings its own set of risks and concerns, as long-term exposure to GM foods has not been tested.

With the fast pace of greening, Florida’s large-scale citrus suppliers, who provide over 60 percent of the U.S. market, could be wiped out in the next decade. Already, insecticide use has doubled and shows no sign of stopping… just like the blight.

Photo: Jill Ettinger