Citrus Greening Spreading to California; Gene Editing Could Save U.S. Industry

Citrus Greening Spreading to California; Gene Editing Could Save U.S. Industry

A disease called citrus greening has devastated Florida’s citrus industry since its discovery in 2005. Agriculture officials are hoping they can stop it before California suffers the same fate.

Citrus greening is a disease that infects citrus plants causing them to produce fruits that are green, misshapen and bitter, unsuitable for sale as fruit or juice.

In Florida, citrus greening has caused a cumulative loss of $2.9 billion in grower revenues from 2007 to 2014, an average of $374 million a year the National Academies of Science reported earlier this year.

Texas’s citrus production has also been affected by the disease.

In an effort to keep the industry afloat, many orange growers turned to the favorable climate in California for production, eventually surpassing Florida’s citrus production as a result. Now, however, citrus greening has hit the west coast.

As Kate Irby writes in a piece for the Sacramento Bee, those in the citrus industry are concerned that citrus greening could lead to the end of all U.S. production.

“I’ve been involved in this industry for a long time, and this is the biggest fight we’ve ever had,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an advocacy organization for California citrus growers. “It’s got us frustrated, it’s got us scared, it’s got us nervous.”

The disease was found in the Southern California city of Hacienda Heights in 2012. The second infected tree in the state wasn’t found until 2015, but within three years 853 infected trees became infected. More and more areas of California have been deemed at serious risk. The disease has gotten as far as San Gabriel, a northern suburb of Los Angeles, but the insect has been found as far north as Lincoln, outside of Sacramento.

And while the disease has not found its way into commercial groves in California yet, Florida’s citrus troubles serve as a cautionary tale for California orange groves.

“We’re hoping we never find it in a commercial grove, but there’s always that potential,” said Victoria Hornbaker, interim director of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

In recent years, biotech has been touted as one solution to citrus greening disease. In this Cornell Alliance for Science video, Ricke Kress of Southern Gardens Citrus explains.

But a possible solution to the citrus greening problem may also be on the horizon through gene editing. The American Seed Trade Association recently released the following video, illustrating how gene editing could save this multi-billion-dollar industry.

Meanwhile, it’s critical that research to find a solution continue to be funded through Congress. To date, the research is promising, but more is needed. As Joel Nelson noted when speaking with Irby on the importance of research funding:

“We’re a ways away, but if we don’t have this research, we don’t have a citrus industry.”

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