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USDA Steps Up Citrus Greening Fight As GMO Fix Looks Promising

If there was any way that American-grown oranges could be saved without turning to genetic engineering, Ricke Kress at Southern Gardens Citrus would take it. But, in the real world, he’s found no choice but to pursue the strategy that saved Hawaii’s papaya crop — genetic engineering for a defense against a more powerful environmental foe.

That’s because a killer bacterium thought to be Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus and known as Huanglongbing, HLB, or yellow dragon disease is devastating Florida oranges and cutting crop estimates to levels not seen since 1969. The threat to U.S citrus trees now also includes those in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and California.

HLB is not an immediate threat to human health, but fruit from infected trees is ruined. For U.S. consumers, the dwindling orange crop threatens to turn “OJ” into “liquid gold.”

On Thursday, USDA weighed in with $1 million more for research that, up to now, has been largely funded by orange growers and processors and Southern Gardens, which is owned by the privately held U.S. Sugar Corporation.

USDA said it was going to provide a “unified emergency response framework” to the spread of citrus greening, which began almost a decade ago. Another $9 million in research into the ability of insects to spread HLB to healthy trees is included in the not-yet-passed Farm Bill.

USDA is also creating a coordinating group for its various units that are involved in finding defenses for citrus greening.

Florida’s $1.5-billion citrus industry could be a complete loss unless it soon finds a way to fight the disease. So far, growers have really been able to do little more than mount an organized retreat, leaving the destroyed trees behind the lines.

So, with no known cure and the only outcome being the death of its trees, Southern Gardens is funding research by Dr. Erik Mirkov at Texas A&M University. Mirkov, currently in Thailand, was not available, but Kress told Food Safety News that the work, now in field trials, is showing promise. USDA was also an early funder of the Texas A&M research.

The Texas A&M plant pathologist appears to have found a way to give citrus resistance to the greening diseases — adding more “green” with a couple of spinach genes. The transgenic trees have moved from the laboratory to actual field trials under all the regulations required when birthing a new genetically modified organism (GMO).

“It’s moving along as well and as quickly as it can be,” says Kress. He says the research project has moved from “lab to trees” and is following all the steps required for both the research and for the possibility that it will eventually qualify a new GMO product.

Kress says for Southern Gardens there will be only one test of success. “Proof of success will only come with the public, “ he says.

If Texas A&M saves American oranges, it will look a lot like Hawaii’s saving of the papaya with the creation of the Rainbow species to resist the ringspot virus, which threatened to eliminate the fruit from the islands. After it was created in 1998, the Rainbow papaya was consumed only in Hawaii, but Japan now imports it as well.

Citrus greening turns oranges into green, misshapen, and bitter-tasting fruit. Millions of acres of citrus crops have already been lost in the U.S. and overseas. Florida and Georgia are entirely under quarantine for citrus greening, as are portions of California, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas. In addition, areas of the U.S. Territories of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands are also under quarantines for citrus greening.

© Food Safety News
  • Lawrence Woodward
    • John Mark Carter

      I use Integrated Pest Management at my house. It doesn’t work for bacterial diseases carried by insect vectors. One bite from one infected psyllid, and the whole tree has the disease. It takes a few years to show serious symptoms. But during that time it’s spreading the disease. You might be able to slow the disease with ideal nutrition, if you have a small operation. But there’s no cure for HLB.

      • Loren Eaton

        Absolutely right, John. The same thing happens with whiteflies and aphids spreading viruses. The minute there is damage, there is infection.

  • tallen2007

    Round Up decreases Boron utilization by plants which then increases the susceptibility of the plant to insects. GMOs are expensive and not the answer, soil management and foliar sprays of missing nutrients is.

    • Jeff Leonard

      Perhaps you should read the article. They are not talking about Roundup ready oranges. They are talking about resistance to a bacterial infection

      • Julia Moran-Grant

        The potentially serious risk to human health is the result of the genetic modification; then magnify that risk with whatever is engineered in the seed to give the plant the desired resistance to the bacterium

        • Loren Eaton

          Have you ever taken a biology or genetics class? BTW oranges are not propagated by seed. What’s your point?

        • Jeff Leonard

          Julia, what do you imagine the serious risk to human health is? Do you know of some mechanism that would constitute a risk? It is routine to make transgenic plants in plant molecular biology labs to prove what a gene does. It has been done hundreds of thousands of times. Why do scientists do this and why do other scientists accept this evidence of gene function? Because we have learned that gene functions (once learned) are predictable. I can insert a known gene within a plant and predict the results. If it wasn’t so, companies wouldn’t be able to make herbicide resistant or insect resistant plants. There is always a range of expression , but this too is well known. You imagine all sorts of horrors perhaps because you haven’t been exposed to the science. I urge you to visit your local land grant university and talk to a plant breeder. You might be impressed with the level of thought they are giving to the subject.

    • lisa

      Foliar sprays of missing nutrients do nothing for systemic bacterial diseases.

  • Sheryl McCumsey

    There is no end to the problems this technology represents. It is insanity that it has progressed this far. The science is imprecise and if those considering it should look outside of the industry for information …they will see the environmental damage, economic damage and damage to human health. They do not deliver the promise they give so do not be making decisions without looking at the methods that are used to develop these products. That is the flaw that this industry tries so hard to hide that will cost much more than the royalties….

  • BB

    Mother Nature always get the last word. We (humans) can keep pretending we know better (GMOs, antibiotics, etc.), but in the end, Mother Nature always wins.

  • Lorrie Benton Carter

    They speak of Hawaii – well, Hawaii just passed severe legislation that has stopped all GMO there. It had has destroyed them. And where we went over and introduced GMO farming to China, they are very angry. The plants did not perform to the expectations and many farmers went bankrupt. There are 30 countries right now that will not accept food from us. Our Government is killing us with this crap! I for one just won’t buy orange juice if they do this. GMO plants KILL BEES! You know, those little things we need for fruit and nuts, etc.

    • Loren Eaton

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. China is doing its own GM research and have been for 15 years. GMO SAVED the Hawaiian papaya industry and is exempt from many of the restriction from those laws. The minute you get rid of those papayas, the non-GMO ones will no longer take advantage of the protection provided and the industry will be in ruins…like it was before. GMO’s don’t kill bees, nicotine-like insecticides do. The bees were dying in places with no GMO’s—can you explain that?

      • Julia Moran-Grant

        You really need to research the GM topic more!

        • Loren Eaton

          No kidding…I guess the fact that I’ve actually been making and testing GM plants (25,000 of them and counting) for 25 years doesn’t count as research. Maybe I could get ‘educated’ at the Greenpeace site.

      • susan

        “Did genetic engineering save the
        Hawaiian papaya? It doesn’t look like it. Instead of saving it, the GMO
        papaya has been rejected by most of the rest of the world and has a
        limited export market.”

        • Loren Eaton

          If it weren’t for the GM, there would be no crop.

  • Julia Moran-Grant

    Haven’t seen any report as to whether any investigation has been underway as to why this bacterium is spreading so fast…this is nature and these things don’t just randomly happen! But, hey, how handy because now “we” can now develop a GMO orange…YUK! A GMO orange is one fruit I will not longer purchase or consume!

  • http://geneticallyengineeredfoodnews.com Ella Baker

    @Lawrence Woodward. I totally agree!

  • Loren Eaton

    Dude, correlation is not a causal relationship. Sort of like blaming an auto accident on your car keys. BTW, cancer rates are going down, not up. And which GMO’s did you quit? Which compound caused your ‘problems’? Would you even know a GMO ingredient if you read it on a label? Oh, and natural is not the same thing as safe.