An orange is an orange is an orange. Or is it?
A few weeks ago TheGreenGrok ran a post about efforts to return the American chestnut tree to our forests through genetic engineering. A week and a half later, the New York Times ran a piece about genetically modified organisms (a k a GMOs) and Florida oranges. Let's take a look.
Florida Oranges Turning Green
The story of the Florida oranges has a lot of parallels to that of the American chestnut. In the case of the chestnuts a fungus that was likely brought in from Asia in 1904 decimated the grand trees that once filled America's forests. The devastation was so severe that "by 1950 the American chestnut was virtually extinct except for occasional root sprouts that also became infected." [pdf]
In the case of oranges, the problem is citrus greening disease. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
"Citrus greening, also called Huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease, is one of the more serious diseases of citrus. This bacterial disease is thought to have originated in China in the early 1900s. The disease is primarily spread by two species of psyllid insects. One species, the Asian citrus pysllid, Diaphorina citri, has been present in Florida since 1998. The bacteria itself is not harmful to humans but the disease has harmed trees in Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Brazil." (USDA)
Once a citrus tree gets the disease, the prognosis is not good. Its life span drops from decades to about three to five years and, probably most important to orange growers and consumers, the fruit of infected trees “is unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice."
Concerned parties are taking action. The USDA and the Florida Department of Agriculture have formed a "unified command” [pdf] to monitor and assess the problem, and the Florida Legislature is appropriating research dollars to stop the disease.
But all signs indicate that the disease is marching on unimpeded.
Commenting on the projection, Michael W. Sparks, the chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade association for Florida citrus growers, said: "This year's crop really shows the devastating effects of [huanglongbing] HLB, or citrus greening disease."
The possibility of using conventional techniques (such as antibiotics or other compounds that would attack the vector, lab-bred natural resistance, management programs, pesticides and as yet unknown technologies) to halt citrus greening soon enough to save the Florida groves seems pretty remote at this point. So it would appear that Florida citrus growers and consumers are faced with two options.
1. Let nature take its course, recognizing that that will likely mean the virtual end of Florida oranges as we know them. At least until and if a few strains are identified that are resistant to the disease, strains that can then be used to repopulate the state's groves.
Bear in mind that that would be a very painful scenario for many. The orange industry is a major part of Florida's economy, and oranges are as iconic to the state as sunshine -- just think of the Orange Bowl, Orange County, Orange City, Port Orange…. The words "Florida" and "oranges" are so near inseparable that I remember in the `50s, when I grew up, people who vacationed in Florida would return bearing cartoned gifts of Florida oranges -- kind of like today's "I got the tee shirt." Option 1 would mean all that would be over.
2. Genetic engineering to the rescue. While conventional methods for stopping citrus greening do not hold much promise, unconventional means could save the orange -- inserting genes into the tasty fruit to modify its DNA thus rendering it immune to citrus greening.
So here are the $64K questions:
If orange growers come up with a GMO version of the orange that is resistant to citrus greening, will they be able to put “100 percent natural” on their label?
Does it matter to you if an orange has a few genes taken from another plant or an animal or even a virus? And why?
Would you rather do without Florida oranges than eat a GMO orange?
What if citrus greening threatened to wipe out all orange groves, everywhere in the world, which is not all that unlikely [pdf]. Would you be willing to give up the idea of ever eating an orange again? Or, knowing that it's a GMO orange or nothing, would you partake of a sweet, juicy GMO orange?
Rethinking the Meaning of ‘Natural’
Before you answer those questions, bear in mind that the orange we know and love today is anything but a totally "natural" fruit. While they are so closely identified with Florida now, oranges are not native to the state. They are believed to have been introduced to Florida by Spanish settlers sometime in the 16th century. Distant descendants from their forebears, today’s varieties are the product of human crossbreeding and hybridization over centuries.
In her New York Times article, journalist Amy Harmon writes:
"The orange, for its part, might never have existed had human migration not brought together the grapefruit-sized pomelo from the topics and the diminutive mandarin from a temperate zone thousands of years ago in China. … [T]he vast majority of oranges in commercial groves are the product of genetic merging that predates the Romans, in which a slender shoot of a favored fruit variety is grafted onto the sturdier roots of other species: lemons, for instance, or sour orange."
I don't know about you but I'm rooting for oranges to be around for a long time regardless of how their genes get there. C'mon guys, we're talking Florida oranges here.
Citrus Greening from the USDA’s Save Our Citrus Program