Goodbye Orange Juice?

May 16, 2013

Florida is synonymous with the citrus industry—especially oranges. It’s almost inconceivable to think that this would ever change…but it might. In fact, it probably will if scientists are unable to come up with a cure or preventative strategy to deal with a bacterial disease that has infected all 32 of the state’s citrus-growing counties. The disease is called citrus greening or Huanglongbing and is caused by the bacteria, Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus. It is spread by a tiny insect—the Asian citrus psyllid—which is no bigger than 2 mm or about the size of the head of a pin.

Citrus greening is one of the most devastating citrus plant diseases in the world. According to a 2012 University of Florida report, citrus greening has cost Florida’s economy an estimated $4.63 billion in lost revenues since 2006 and looms as an enormous threat to the state’s $9 billion citrus industry. To date, citrus greening disease has killed millions of citrus plants in the southeastern United States and is threatening to spread across the entire country.

The disease is named for the green, oddly shaped fruit that is produced after an infection occurs. These misshapen fruit are bitter and unsuitable for sale as either fresh fruit or for juice. Unfortunately, most citrus trees die within a few years of first becoming infected. Currently, there is no cure for the disease and while it poses no threat to humans or animals, its impact will likely be even broader than the millions of devastated acres of citrus crops throughout the United States and overseas. What should be of concern to honey-lovers is that the future of the heavenly sweet and fragrant orange blossom honey made by the bees that pollinate orange groves may be in grave jeopardy. While citrus fruits are not exclusively dependent upon insect pollination, there exists a symbiotic relationship between citrus growers and beekeepers. Furthermore, some industry analysts suggest that the increased yield of citrus fruits due to honeybee pollination is around $800 million annually.

Fortunately, some large growers and corporations, including Coca Cola (which owns Minute Maid and the Simply Orange brands) have collectively invested billions of dollars to combat citrus greening. Additionally, Florida lawmakers have recently approved $8 million toward developing strategies to mitigate the effects of the disease. There is even more hope on the horizon as organic farmers are experimenting with custom blends of organic fertilizer and nutrient supplementation to ensure that orange trees remain particularly healthy. These more robust trees may be better able to resist infection. So, I am optimistic that an effective solution to the citrus greening problem is possible and won’t panic about the potential loss of orange juice or orange blossom honey from my breakfast table. I will, however, make sure that I especially savor every drop of both from now on!