Since 2005 orange growers across the world have had their crop threatened by an emerging biological threat known as citrus greening. Citrus greening has been devastating orange production, most notably in the orange juice belts of Florida, for many years without any hope on the horizon to combat its spread. Scientists are now working with orange growers in an effort to halt the continued annihilation of orange fruits threatening a multi-billion dollar farming industry using DNA technology.

Citrus greening is a bacterium which once exposed to an orange fruit farming operations, wreaks havoc to every orange tree it touches. There are no known naturally occurring immunological responses to a citrus greening outbreak. Efforts to stop an infection in a given farm have to date included very crude and costly methods: slashing and removing infected orange trees. In other instances pesticides were used to eliminate winged insects thought to spread the disease, however the contagion remains at large and unabated.

In 2005 more than 8,000 Florida orange growers have decided to fight back against the spreading bacterium. Searching across the globe, these farmers sought to find and import an orange tree variant which had natural resistance to the bacterium. However these efforts to date have not produced a single organism with resistance to citrus greening.

Scientific solution to failing orange crops

With annual orange harvests across Florida now in a steady decline due to citrus greening, the farmers affected by this plague have enlisted DNA scientists to help stop the spread. For many years now scientists have been able to successfully alter a given crop’s DNA structure to make it more resilient to certain diseases.

Genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.’s, have received much attention in the global media over the last several years as many people, especially those in European countries, have reacted negatively to its use in food production. Scientists however contend that there is no negligible impact on food quality nor danger to humans consuming GMO altered food products. Still, with no definitive answers on the potential for long term consequences in the human body for this relatively new technology, many consumers don’t want to take the risk.

Running out of options

The $9 billion dollar orange industry in just Florida alone, while sensitive to consumer reaction to genetic altercation of their fruit and fruit products such as orange juice, sees inaction to the spread of citrus greening as an impossible option. As the bacterium continues to spread unabated from orange farm to orange farm, there is little doubt in the eyes of producers that unless serious changes are implemented now, the orange growing industry will be devastated. In addition to being an important part of Florida’s economy, orange growers also stress that their farms employ an average of 76,000 people across the state. Letting citrus greening run its course will affect not only large corporate farming operations, but could very well jeopardize the employment of these people.

Researchers from the University of Florida have stated that if the public cannot come around to the idea of a genetically altered orange juice, then they will have to stop drinking it all together. The prevalence of the bacterium is so wide-spread and so devastating to orange farms that the only alternative to genetic altercation of the orange trees would be a very scarce and very expensive orange juice supply.

Farmers contend that genetic alteration has occurred historically in nature since the dawn of time. The changing of the gene structure to resist citrus greening is simply accelerating what nature will eventually do anyway over time, but by doing it now we may all be able to still enjoy a glass of orange juice from our local grocery store without breaking the bank.

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A long time back, 1995 to be precise, Edward R Murrow during a television interview, asked Dr Jonas Salk, who he thought owned the patent on the polio vaccine. The reason being, was that Dr Salk, with his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, had developed the breakthrough inoculation – his reply was ‘’Well, the people (own it), there is no patent, could you patent the sun?’’ –  can human genes be patented?