Growers across Florida are worried about a disease ravaging the groves: citrus greening. Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston, thinks that the solution for saving the orange juice industry lies in genetically modified orange trees. "If we don't get a cure for it, conceivably it could wipe it out," said Kress. But he thinks the industry will find a solution.
Citrus greening was first found in Florida, in Southern Gardens' groves, in 2005, shortly after Kress came to the company. Since then, it's destroyed more than a quarter of the company's trees. "We've lost in excess of 25 percent of our trees--over 700,000 trees--since we found this disease," Kress said.
Florida's billion-dollar orange juice industry is number two in the world, behind the entire country of Brazil. So Southern Gardens Citrus decided to fight, turning to researchers at universities to find a solution--a genetic solution. They tried mixing in a pig gene, a synthetic gene, and even a gene from a virus. But so far, the most promising solution to fight off greening is a gene from the spinach plant. "We all grew up on spinach," said Kress.
"Citrus greening is definitely a major threat to this industry nationwide, not just Florida," explained Dr. Calvin Arnold, lab director of the USDA's Horticultural Research Lab in Fort Pierce. Arnold is very aware of the research Kress and his team at Southern Gardens Citrus are doing with the spinach gene and says, "Those spinach genes have a high probability of being very safe."
He also notes that one of the government's research projects that looks very promising is one that uses a gene from a relative of the citrus plant--the thorny Poncirus trifoliata
. He believes that ultimately, science is going to save the orange industry.
Kress says that so far, the trees with the spinach gene are still healthy, but it'll be at least five to six years before orange juice could be produced from these trees. But he realizes he also has to convince his skeptics that a genetically modified orange is safe. "If we don't communicate and explain and work through the process of what we're doing with the consumer, it won't matter," he said. And for Kress, one of his priorities, besides finding a solution to greening, is finding a way to convince consumers that modifying the orange may be the only way to save it.