Why Are Florida’s Orange Trees Dying?

 

“It is not the overpowering invader we must fear, but the weakened condition of the victim.”

            …William A. Albrecht (1888-1974), Ph.D., Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri

Other Albrecht quotes:

  • “Plants that have access to soil that contains the nutrients needed to develop its own protective mechanisms are not susceptible to insects and disease.”
  • “Insects and diseases are the symptoms of a failing crop.”
  • “Food is fabricated soil fertility.”
  • “The use of toxic sprays is an act of desperation in a dying agriculture.”
  • “NPK formulas, (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) as legislated and enforced by State Departments of Agriculture, mean malnutrition, attack by insects, bacteria and fungi, weed takeover, crop loss in dry weather, and general loss of mental acuity in the population, leading to degenerative metabolic disease and early death.”

Dr. William Albrecht said these things 80 years ago. It was 40 years more before the terms “environmental concern” or “holistic” entered the national consciousness. At the time, Albrecht was the foremost authority on the relation of soil fertility to human health. He recognized the direct link between soil quality and food quality, and drew the direct connection between poor quality forage crops and ill health in livestock.

To see how far agricultural thinking has regressed in the last 60 years, review the article below for any references to these concepts as the top universities, including our own Texas A&M, and their scientists combat Florida’s citrus orchard failure.

Florida’s 2016 Citrus Pest Management Guide recommends 56 different herbicides—twice that if you count formulations—with the advisory that many should not be used if humans will consume the fruit or juice within 12 months of application.

Who doubts that chemicals that are unsafe for human consumption harm plants and soil life? Not one of these chemicals would be approved for use if their manufacturers had to prove the chemicals  didn’t hurt non-target plants and soil life.

Regarding Texas’ range and wildlife issues, including the “mysterious” 80% nationwide quail decline over the last 40 years, I ask that my good friends who are spending  millions of public money to study quail worms or pronghorn worms or bighorn sheep parasites, budget an extra $50 for a few of Albrecht’s books.

 

NOTE: This post initially appeared on WSJ.com on September 26, 2017

 

Florida is synonymous with oranges. They’re on the state license plate. At the product’s heyday in 1977, the state boasted 53 orange juice processing plants. Today, beset by bacteria, hurricanes and international competition, there are seven.

 

A disease called “citrus greening” is pushing Florida’s orange juice industry toward the brink of collapse. Greening starts at the leaves and works its way through the tree like a hardening of the arteries, blocking nutrients and water. Oranges drop off branches unripe and unusable. This year’s crop will likely be the smallest since the 1940s.

So miserable is the condition of Florida’s orange industry that farmers are banking on inventing a genetically engineered orange that will be ready for sale—at the earliest—in 2022.

he secret grove—1.5 acres of knee-high trees created with a spinach gene scientists hope can defend against the disease—is down an unmarked road and behind locked gates. Visitors are logged; the company requested photographs taken by a reporter offer no clues to the grove’s location.

“We’re a bunch of scientists sitting on 12,000 acres and a giant orange juice plant we need to use,” said Tim Eyrich, vice president of research and commercialization at Southern Gardens Citrus, the company developing the engineered fruit. “If this collapses, all your orange juice comes from Brazil.”

Greening—which also hurts grapefruit, limes, lemons and other citrus—has cut Florida’s output in half over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Revenue and jobs in the citrus sector are each down by about a third in the past three years. The state’s industry notched revenue of $9 billion in 2016.

The cut in production of Florida oranges—95% of which are used for juice—has helped drive the beverage’s price at the grocery store up more than 50% since 2004, just before the disease was found in the state, according to measurement firm Nielsen.

Making matters worse, Hurricane Irma this month hit a direct blow on Florida’s citrus groves, knocking 50% of developing oranges off trees across the state, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Trees with roots already weakened by greening were sitting in 4 feet of water in some of Florida’s southern areas earlier this month.

Shannen Leahy, a research assistant at Southern Gardens, transferred a psyllid insect in the company’s lab.

During the storm, nurseries quarantined to keep out the disease lost roofs, and scientific laboratories working on anti-greening projects lost power, potentially compromising research years in the making.

Southern Gardens, based in Clewiston, Fla., is one of the largest producers of orange juice in the country, supplying juice to nearly every major brand and private label. It said its engineered groves didn’t suffer hurricane damage but that its other groves around the state lost large amounts of fruit.

California oranges, which are mostly grown for eating, haven’t been widely affected by greening, and noncitrus crops aren’t affected.

The disease’s carrier is the Asian citrus psyllid, a non-native insect so tiny it can be mistaken for a speck of pollen. It travels from grove to grove with little more than a light breeze and is undeterred by pesticides that can’t eradicate it entirely. It spreads the Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacteria as it sucks sap from the plants.

Some growers blame trees shipped to the U.S. from Asia for bringing in the bug. A series of hurricanes in 2004 helped spread the disease throughout Florida.

Since 2009, the USDA has invested more than $400 million to study resistant plants, pesticides and other chemicals to attack the disease.

The technology Southern Gardens is using, developed by Texas A&M University, inserts a gene that is a part of the immune system of spinach into the genetic structure of an orange. The modified cells grown in a lab eventually shoot out roots and are planted in soil and develop into trees. The project is among Florida’s most promising efforts for a cure, even though the trees are still five years away from producing fruit.

The company is also experimenting with adding a spinach gene to a harmless virus naturally living inside the “phloem”—the vascular system of the tree—without affecting the genes of the tree itself.

It’s a yearslong process. Scientists wait for psyllids to come to the grove naturally to infect the trees, and then see if they are resistant to greening. “All it takes is one hurricane and you’re back to square one,” said Michael Rogers, director of the Citrus Research and Education Center at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Southern Gardens is testing genetically engineered orange trees that scientists hope will resist greening.

Other gene therapies scientists are researching, including attempting to turn off the citrus genes that aid the disease, aren’t as far along as Southern Gardens’ engineered fruit project, he said. Ideas such as testing penicillin in oranges, heating trees to kill the bacteria and growing citrus under protective screening have been impractical for juice fruit or unsuccessful.

“It’s just a race against the clock,” Mr. Rogers said. “We need to get these trees to growers that are still in the business.”

Within the industry and among consumers, there are questions about the use of genetically modified foods, which are widely found in grain crops such as corn and soybeans but are less common in fruit. With consumers moving away from the products, there is a risk that food companies won’t be willing to buy genetically modified juice, no matter how successful the science.

“God only made one type of orange,” said David Crews, a small orange grower in Lake Wales, Fla. “We don’t have a magic tree.”

Southern Gardens said regulators require its experimental trees be tested in real-life conditions to ensure that the crops aren’t harmful to the environment, and that officials from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regularly visit.

Brazil has stepped up orange production, threatening to deliver the final blow to the U.S. industry. Brazil’s larger groves and different practices have helped control the spread of greening. Psyllids, the disease-carrying insects, are attracted to new shoots, which sprout more frequently in Florida than in Brazil because trees are grown in warmer, more humid areas.

The USDA estimates that Brazil’s total output of orange juice will rise 55% this year from last year, with exports rising 28%. Brazil’s production lead over the U.S. has doubled since around 2003.

Juice labels that once boasted 100% Florida juice have been altered to read 100% juice. The majority of concentrated orange juice—a product that has much of the water removed to ease shipping and that is later reconstituted—is already imported. This year Florida’s domestic production of not-from-concentrate juice, which sells at a higher premium, also won’t meet domestic demand, according to bank Rabobank International.

In Frostproof, Fla., Phillip Rucks, owner of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery, drove past an emaciated grove in one of Florida’s largest citrus areas. It was July and fruit was just starting to develop on trees.

“We call this bad neighbor syndrome,” Mr. Rucks said. The grove, abandoned to greening, sat directly across the street from a neighbor still attempting to maintain trees.

Rucks is the largest citrus nursery in the U.S., with 850,000 young budlings and rootstock. The high-tech compound is designed to keep trees quarantined, with growth taking place completely under cover.

Inspectors visit regularly to check for the presence of psyllids. Visitors coming in the building are sprayed down with an antibacterial agent, and the entire compound is surrounded by giant trees designed to block the wind from transporting insects. An unmarked laboratory is filled with a refrigerator full of cloned tissue samples.

Tim Eyrich, vice president of research and commercialization at Southern Gardens, at the company’s office in Clewiston.

Mr. Rucks tests different varieties and different growing methods to find plants resistant to greening. “I’m spoon feeding these trees. This grove is on probiotics,” he said, maneuvering his pickup truck between tightly spaced trees in a grove near the nursery compound, the branches packed with green leaves and developing oranges.

He pointed out tanks used for irrigating trees with the antibiotics streptomycin and oxytetracycline. Others are given molasses, injected into the soil to feed microbes. He calls it his “witch’s brew.”

“Early on there was hope that the research would lead to a silver bullet,” said Adam Putnam, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture. “Now the hope is there will be incremental solutions. Expectations are more realistic now.”

Brant Schirard, a citrus grower along Florida’s eastern belt, said growers are doing everything they can to diversify, with farmers moving into peaches, blueberries, hops and pineapples, among other crops. Approximately 130,000 acres of citrus have been abandoned across the state, according to the USDA.

An added factor is shifting tastes. Americans are drinking 48% less orange juice than they were in 2005, according to Nielsen, as fewer people sit down to breakfast and more people try to avoid sugar, or are tempted by more exotic beverages.

Southern Gardens has been fighting greening since 2005, when the disease first reached its groves, which at that time amounted to 15,000 acres. The company’s president Dan Casper said it has planted about 750,000 new trees in the past four years alone to replace diseased ones, and that it is spending millions on new tree plantings, grove research and citrus greening research.

“I’ve been working on plant diseases since 1981,” said Mike Irey, director of research at Southern Gardens. “It’s the most miserable disease I’ve ever worked with.”

Orange trees killed by greening in an abandoned grove near Labelle, Fla., in July.

The bacteria causing the disease is “fastidious,” meaning scientists haven’t been able to figure out what nutrients it needs to grow it in a petri dish. That makes it nearly impossible to research remedies in a laboratory setting. Each time scientists want to try a new treatment, they need to test it on an actual tree, wait for it to produce fruit, then see if it becomes infected with the disease.

In the past, healthy trees produced fruit for an average of 20 to 30 years or longer. These days they must be replanted, at best, in 12 to 15 years.

“We’re putting $54 in each tree by the time we pick the first fruit off the tree, and that crop won’t give you back $54,” said Jim Snively, vice president of groves at the company. “You’ll get $9 back the first year. And then the clock starts ticking.”

Appeared in the September 27, 2017, print edition as ‘The Florida Orange, State Icon, Is Dying.’

Posted by Chris Gill

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.

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