Considering “GMO Oranges”

This week’s New York Times article on genetically modified oranges has generated a lot of discussion, much of it reflecting nuances that have been absent in the larger debate over GMOs. (Read the article here, if you haven’t already. ) But there are a few points that I think are not well represented in the article.

It’s not just oranges: The Huanglongbing (HLB) bacteria is fatal to all citrus varieties, not just oranges. Lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, limes… everything. No orange juice, lemonade, margaritas or cuties in the lunch box. None in the backyard; none at the farmer’s market.  HLB does not discriminate between large growers and suburbia, or organic and conventional.

Genetic modification is just one possible avenue: The citrus industry is exploring a wide range of solutions. The search is on for naturally resistant citrus varieties, insect parasites and predators that feed on the Asian Citrus Psyllid that spreads the disease, antibiotics to cure infection, vaccines that could prevent infection, better trapping to quickly identify psyllid infestations, better control over the shipment of citrus fruit and plant materials, broader area treatment programs to prevent “islands” from reinfecting cleaned areas, better tests to identify the presence of HLB bacteria in a tree before it is symptomatic… the list goes on.  Probably no single approach will be the “silver bullet”, but it will be at least 5 years before we can clearly see which of these approaches or combination of approaches can be successful.

This really isn’t about Monsanto: The business practices, lobbying and litigation strategies pursued by Monsanto have been a major part of the broader debate over GMOs, but Monsanto is a peripheral player in this discussion at most.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know what the answer is. Personally, my hunch is that some combo of options other than genetic modification will prevail. And yes… we are continuing to plant conventionally grown citrus trees. (No GMO trees are being produced outside of the research world, nor do I expect them to be for at least 5 to 10 years.) But if there was ever a case to be made for using genetic engineering for a food crop, this is it. This is not about bumping up yields, or reducing cultural costs. We may be looking at a future where citrus is confined to botanical gardens and academic germoplasm repositories. We need to be smart, but we also need to do something.

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