Florida’s citrus trees are dying and it seems as though no one is interested or aware of what’s going on. This seems unreasonable right? Florida’s oranges are famous all over the country for being the best and sweetest of them all. How could it be that the trees could be problematic?
Not unlike bananas, the agriculture of oranges is truly suffering.
Florida’s citrus industry is on a difficult and steep decline because of a deadly disease that is decimating the major crop. The Washington Post reported that a bacterium by the name of Huang long bing (HLB) has infected 90% of Florida’s citrus groves. The bacterium comes from China, as did citrus fruit in the first place. It is believed that it got to Florida via smuggled tree clippings in 2005.
The effect has been nothing short of catastrophic: the pathogen actually prevents raw green fruit from ripening, an effect called citrus greening. When the fruit does have a chance to ripen, it drops to the ground before it can be picked. Collecting a piece of fruit that has touched the ground is illegal in the state of Florida. The situation is worsened by the presence of citrus psyllids, which are tiny insects that spread HLB from leaf to leaf. The citrus psyllid will be aided by climate change to move further north out of Florida.
The harvest season in Florida is long and runs from November until May, but a huge group of growers has walked out of the groves because they don’t see a future in their crop. This issue has been around for a while but has worsened significantly over the last couple of years. In fact, more than 7,000 farmers grew citrus in 2004, but close to 5,000 have now dropped out. As a result, juice-processing factories and packing operations have shrunk to a small percentage of their previous numbers. A whopping 34,000 jobs were lost between 2006 and 2016 in the citrus industry.
The available solutions are many, but nothing short of drastic. Many farmers have been informed that they should uproot their groves and begin again from scratch. The only thing is that this is not a financially viable situation because of the cost of the trees themselves. A new, disease-resistant strain of orange tree has been developed by the University of Florida, but they are quite costly. At $12 per tree, this is not an option for groves of 2,500 plus trees. Also, orange trees are usually a sustainable crop, but they take five years at least to produce fruit.
New research is coming out to try to develop new root stocks in order to replace those that are more vulnerable to the disease. The idea is to genetically engineer hardier varieties of oranges, but these would not be the same species as we are accustomed to seeing in our local supermarkets. The Valencia orange, for instance, used in most juices, would not be available under this engineering.
This story deserves significantly more coverage, as most of the country is not aware that their fruit access is quickly dwindling. We can expect rising pricing of citrus fruits until a solution is found. At this rate, we will need to rely exclusively on California to provide the United States with the oranges that it needs. This is unrealistic given the droughts that have been happening in the state. In the meantime, it’s best if we appreciate the fruits we have now and get accustomed to drinking apple juice for breakfast instead of orange.