Greening-Resistant GMO Oranges Come One Step Closer To Market. Here's Why You Should Care.

05/14/2015 01:46 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it has given major Florida citrus grower Southern Gardens approval for large-scale field testing of citrus trees that have been genetically engineered to resist citrus greening, a ruinous disease that has caused orange production to plummet to the lowest levels seen in decades.

As New York Times reporter Amy Harmon explained in a terrific feature in July 2013, Southern Gardens, a division of U.S. Sugar Corporation, the country's largest sugar producer, has been developing the trees for years now. Their genome has been modified to include a gene from spinach plants that produces a protein that makes citrus trees inhospitable to the bacteria that cause citrus greening. Though scientists and citrus growers are exploring several possible treatments for greening, which currently has no cure, many believe that the genetically modified tree offers the best chances of success.

Is your head spinning? Understandable. This stuff is complicated. But it's also very important. So let's break it down.

What is citrus greening?

Citrus greening, which is also called huanglongbing or HLB, is a disease that has been afflicting citrus trees on a large scale for decades. It's caused by two related types of bacteria, both of which are spread from tree to tree by tiny insects called psyllids. The bacteria live deep within the trunks of the trees and attack their vascular systems, making it difficult for the trees to transport nutrients from the soil to their leaves and fruit.

Trees infected with citrus greening produce fruit that's small, green and disgustingly bitter. They also tend to drop fruit before it reaches maturity. Within a few years of infection, the disease can make a once-flourishing tree completely unproductive.

Why is citrus greening such a big deal?

Because it's already dealt tremendous damage to citrus production all around the world, and it could eventually destroy the American citrus industry.

Two states currently produce the bulk of American citrus: Florida and California. Citrus greening affects all types of citrus plants, but in both places, oranges are by far the biggest product. Florida oranges are mostly squeezed into juice, while California oranges are mostly eaten fresh. Citrus greening was first discovered in Florida in 2005; it's now believed to be present in every single citrus grove in the state. In the past decade, Florida orange production has dropped by about a third, to the lowest level in 50 years, while orange juice prices have skyrocketed.

A major HuffPost feature on citrus greening in August 2013 included a infographic by Jan Diehm, detailing the economic damages wrought through that point:

Since then, it's done even more harm. According to research by University of Florida economists, the disease dealt the industry $7.8 billion in damages between 2006 and 2014. The disease continues to infect more trees, and become more severe in trees that are already infected, so the worst could still be ahead.

It's unlikely that citrus greening would ruin every single tree in Florida anytime soon. But the orange juice industry is very complicated -- it relies on a host of businesses other than farms, especially processing plants. If a cure to citrus greening isn't developed, orange production could fall to a point where there's not enough volume to support these other businesses, which could create a domino effect resulting in the loss of affordable orange juice.

California's commercial citrus growers have so far escaped infection. But the psyllids that spread the disease have started to spread throughout the state, so many believe it's only a matter of time before citrus greening gets to California as well.

What are citrus farmers doing to fight greening?

Most Florida farmers have drastically ramped up their use of supplemental nutrition to help mask the symptoms of citrus greening, and chemical insecticides to kill the psyllids that spread the disease. This has made citrus farming far more expensive than it was in the pre-greening era, but few believe it's a long-term solution. For that reason, the citrus industry, the USDA and research universities have been spending millions of dollars to find a cure. Many avenues are being explored, but none have attracted as much attention as the one Southern Gardens is working on.

What makes Southern Gardens' idea for a cure special?

A few things. Because it involves the creation of inherently greening-resistant trees, it could be relatively easy for farmers to implement. They'd just use the new trees when planting, rather than having to apply sprays or salves several times a season. Early testing has also been very promising in terms of efficacy.

More importantly, though, it's a solution that relies on genetic engineering, a hugely controversial but hugely transformative technique in the agricultural world. If the test is successful and Southern Gardens gets approval from the requisite governmental agencies, their new oranges could become one of just nine crops that count genetically modified organisms -- more commonly known as GMOs -- among their varieties approved for commercial use.

Back up a second -- what exactly is a GMO?

A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is one in which the genome -- its DNA and RNA -- has been modified by advanced biotechnological techniques. Most GMOs, and all those used in agriculture, have genomes that include one or more genes that were originally found in another type of organism. Many agricultural GMOs, including corn and soybeans, include genetic material from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, that produces a toxin lethal to insects that would otherwise damage the crop.

Why are people scared of GMOs?

That's a very complicated question, one that many extremely intelligent people, including Harmon, the author of the previously mentioned New York Times feature, have dedicated years of work to answering.

On a fundamental level, people are suspicious of GMOs because they are so new. Transgenesis, the process of inserting genes from one kind of organism into another one, wasn't successfully performed by scientists until 1973. And the first food created by a GMO plant, a tomato that stayed fresh for longer than conventional varieties, didn't hit store shelves until 1994. But in the 20 years since then, they've become completely ubiquitous: 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in America are GMOs, for example.

The novelty of GMOs leads many to fear that they haven't been adequately tested for safety, making the people who eat them -- almost everyone in America -- into human guinea pigs.

For what it's worth, the overwhelming majority of scientists, and almost every major scientific organization that has taken a stand on the issue, believe that genetic modification poses no inherent risks to human health, and that the GMOs that have been approved for consumption so far are completely safe to eat. Scientists and those in the ag business have often pointed out that the genomes of all crops we grow are very far from their natural state. They were produced by hundreds or thousands of years of intentional cross-breeding by human beings to be bigger, more delicious, easier to grow and more healthful than their so-called wild counterparts.

Some experts, even those convinced that GMOs are fine from a human health perspective, have serious concerns about the economic impact of GMOs. Agriculture giant Monsanto owns the patent to many GMO seeds and makes billions off their sale every year, and the company has been known to use its economic clout in troubling ways. But many also believe that fear of Monsanto's economic impact has been drastically overstated.

Is there any reason to be concerned about these oranges?

Sure. Though there's broad scientific consensus that genetic modification isn't inherently dangerous, there's also broad scientific consensus that it could be dangerous if used the wrong way. If, say, a carrot's genome were modified to include genes that produce Botulinum toxin, which can be lethal to humans, that could be very dangerous indeed. We would never want to eat carrots from such a plant. That's a major reason that all new GMOs must undergo extensive testing and approval from multiple federal agencies before they go to market.

That said, many experts have been relatively supportive of Southern Garden's greening-resistant GMO. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, for example, who has often criticized Monsanto and genetic engineering, wrote that it was one GMO he could "actually endorse." And when famed food writer Michael Pollan tweeted a critical response to Harmon's piece, scientists and writers responded very aggressively in defense of the Southern Gardens project.

Part of the reason for this is that, while most GMOs making farmers' jobs easier without benefiting the people who buy their crops directly, this project addresses a concrete consumer problem: the possible death of the citrus industry. But it's also because the source of the genes being spliced into the tree -- spinach -- is such a known quantity.

"From a food safety point of view, they're taking a gene from a crop that we normally eat ourselves," Greg Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The Huffington Post. "I can't tell you for certain that it's safe to eat, not yet. But the fact that they're introducing a gene from a crop that we already eat makes it extremely likely that it will be safe."

Jaffe said he would be far more concerned if the genes in question derived from a food such as peanuts, to which many people are severely allergic. In that case, there would be a risk that the citrus trees would start producing proteins that might make some people sick. But almost no one is allergic to spinach.

What are the next steps for these oranges?

Southern Gardens is moving fast to start the field tests for these oranges, company president Ricke Kress told HuffPost. The EPA's approval, which allows Southern Gardens to plant 150 acres in Florida and 50 acres in Texas, lasts three years, and can be renewed after that. But Kress said the results of the experiment could become fairly clear within that first three year period, the amount of time it takes for citrus trees to produce significant quantities of fruit.

"If we were dealing with a corn plant, that's an annual, so you can put the seeds into the ground and get results within a year," Kress explained. "Citrus tree takes years to develop, and so although we can evaluate the trees as we're building them and growing them for tolerance to the disease, it will take years, not months, to figure out whether they'll be actionable."

If this testing process goes well and Southern Gardens wants to plant a commercial crop, the company will be required to get approval from the EPA and the USDA. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration has an optional approval process for GMO foods. Companies wishing to bring new GMOs to market are not legally bound to go through this process, but everyone that has come up with one has done so. Southern Gardens is likely to do so as well.

Kress said, in short, that the very soonest these oranges could come to market would be in three years, but that five to seven years would be a more realistic target.

Even if the testing is a runaway success, of course, obstacles remain. Citrus greening will likely do more damage to the industry in the next few years, possibly so much that it will have a very different structure by the time this fruit is ready. And consumers, especially those outside America, are so resistant to the idea of GMOs that Southern Gardens and the industry at large would have to do a lot of educating to get them to open up to the idea of drinking GMO orange juice. They'll have to explain, for example, that this orange juice won't taste like spinach. But if all that work can be done, it's one of the most promising solutions around to a serious existential threat.

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