Will oranges go the way of the dodo?

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A recent article in The New York Times documents the efforts being made by Florida citrus growers to combat a disease citrus greening that threatens to destroy the entire industry, if not oranges as a species. This is not a new threat, indeed three years ago the National Academy of Science produced a report on the imminent danger of this insect-carried bacterial disease.

The disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, and can move rapidly through an orchard, rendering the trees unproductive at best. Citrus greening causes the yield of affected trees to decrease, and as it progresses their leaves become blotchy, new shoots are yellow, and the fruit is small, lopsided and may have an off flavor.

As noted in The NY Times article, standard cross-breeding of current orange varieties with plants resistant to the bacteria holds little hope such plants have not been found. Thus the only hope for citrus farmers is to control the insect carriers by increased pesticide spraying, or using genetic engineering to insert a gene or genes from other organisms that will make the orange trees immune to the bacterium and the psyllid.

In fact, the NAS report, while advocating earlier detection and destruction of infected trees, notes Genetic engineering holds the greatest hope for generating trees with [the desired] traits.

The problem is the mind-set of many in the public that genetic engineering is dangerous and to be avoided. Thus, citrus growers are between the proverbial rock and hard place if they don t use some form of genetic engineering to combat citrus greening, they could well lose their orchards. But if they do use it, they re concerned about public anti-GMO attitudes.

So here is a sad example of how the scare-mongers can negatively impact an entire industry, perhaps seal the doom of a valuable food crop, and cause the increased use of pesticides, cautions ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava. She adds, We see this incipient tragedy in Florida and around the world at the same time that various states are considering enacting misguided laws to require the labeling of any foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients. Anti-GMO activists supposedly want to protect the environment as well as health but their refusal to follow reputable science will likely have the opposite effect.