A Precautionary Tale of Citrus Decline

The World Apple Report is an eagerly anticipated monthly publication for apple growers like us, and the Nov. 2015 issue had a story we are particularly interested in sharing. Typically accessible by a paid subscription only, we were graciously given permission to share the article in its entirety below (with a few minor edits). We believe it’s a great case study for the risks of being overly conservative when it comes to embracing the benefits that biotechnology can offer:

Precautionary Tale of Citrus Decline

Oranges have been among the world’s great fruits for many decades. However, their position is now threatened by an uncontrollable disease, citrus greening. According to the University of Florida, citrus greening has seriously affected citrus production in a number of countries in Asia, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian peninsula, and was discovered in Brazil in July 2014. Wherever the disease has appeared, citrus production has been compromised with the loss of millions of trees.GMO Orange

Oranges are not alone in facing such deadly threats. The kiwifruit industry in New Zealand was devastated briefly by the PSA bacteria. Banana production remains threatened by black sigatoka disease. The wheat industry in many countries is susceptible to Ug99, a virulent strain of stem rust. The papaya industry in Hawaii was almost wiped out by the ringspot virus.

A common feature of these new threats has been the rapidity with which they emerged, and the rapidity with which the infections moved across large growing areas. However, the Hawaiian papaya industry is still unique in having been saved by a genetically modified papaya, developed by USDA scientist Dr. Dennis Gonsalves.

The Florida Example

The continuing devastation in Florida’s citrus industry has occurred despite the fact that the industry can draw on the resources of many large multinational beverage companies, and has access to the best experts in many scientific fields to attack citrus greening using conventional treatments.

As the attached chart shows, by 2014-15, bearing area of oranges in Florida was more than one-third below its 1996-97 peak. Production, which consistently topped 10 million short tons between 1996-97 and 2003-04, had fallen to less than half that level in 2014-15.

The number of orchards fell from over 11,000 in 1997 to just above 7,500 in 2012, and orchard area fell by 42 percent. The rate of decline has speeded up. The 2012 census showed 3,639 citrus fruit orchards, a 40 percent decline from the over 6,000 just five years earlier in 2007. These dry numbers do not show the full agony of the losses of farms, assets and incomes suffered by Florida growers, packers and shippers due to citrus greening.

Florida: Bearing Area and Production of Oranges, 1990-91 to 2014-15

(Bearing area, 1,000 acres, Production, 10,000 short tons)

Florida Orange Bearing Acreage

Source: USDA,ERS, online. Fruit and Tree Nut Yearbook Tables.

Avoiding a Death Spiral

On October 12, 2015, the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam H. Putman, released a statement saying, “On the back of the smallest orange crop in nearly 50 years last (2014) season, this (2015) initial crop estimate confirms that Florida’s citrus industry is in a fight for its life…We will continue to fight to save the industry, its more than $10.7 billion economic impact and the more than 64,000 jobs it supports.” The Commissioner asked the Florida State Legislature for $18.7 million this year to support critical research, grow clean citrus stock and replant diseased trees and more.

In the meantime, Dr Erik Mirkov, a plant pathologist at Texas A & M University has developed a genetically-engineered citrus tree, using the DNA from spinach, that is resistant to greening. Yet no company has been willing to commercialize the discovery for fear that the resulting orange juice would be denounced by the enemies of genetic engineering. For the same reason, the Florida citrus industry continues to throw many millions of dollars at other approaches that have offered very limited control.

Need to Tackle [GMO Opposition]

The citrus industry in Florida, and worldwide, can allow its gradual death spiral to continue, or it can grab the solution offered by genetic engineering, and then be prepared for a long battle against the anti-GMO activists. In that battle, it will have to tackle head-on tactics such as destruction of experimental plots, distortion of facts, intimidation of processors and retailers, exaggerations in the media, and fear-mongering among consumers.

However, if the citrus industry is not willing to take on [GMO opponents] when its survival is at stake, the next commodity to face such a similar damaging disease will find it even harder to get a fair hearing for use of legal and effective genetic engineering techniques.

About Joel Brooks

Growing up in the Okanagan, Joel had the opportunity to experience apple growing first hand, a background that lead him to his role as Product & Special Projects Manager. Joel feels privileged to work with such great people towards a goal that’s so easy to get behind – helping people to eat more apples.


  1. Hello Joel

    I would like to have a phone conversation with you.
    I grow citrus with a difference in Texas. Professor Emeritus, Citrus grower, Nurseryman, Father of Citrus Orange Revolution, etc. Please check out my LinkedIn articles, or Google my name.
    We are making a difference in Texas. I am working on an awareness video on Wake Up America with the citrus story. Founder & CEO of US Citrus, http://www.uscitrus.com

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