The future of orange crops are at risk and pig genes may be considered part of the solution. (I’m not kidding)
On July 27, the New York Times (NYT) officially staked its flag into Big Ag’s garden and into the soil of the GMO camp with its wildly controversial piece, “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA.”
The feature highlights the story of a highly influential orange grower and his undying quest to stave off Asian jumping lice and the bacteria that they carry, which has been devastating Florida’s orange crop since 2005.
Committed to engineering the world’s first genetically modified orange tree, the article centers on Ricke Kress, the president of Southern Gardens Citrus who is in charge of two and a half million orange trees and a factory that squeezes juice for Tropicana and Florida’s Best. According to NYT, Kress’s GMO savior would fight C. liberibacter and citrus psyllids through whatever means science determines necessary. As for public acceptance, Kress told his industry colleagues, “We can’t think about that right now.”
Rick Kress’ mission to save oranges by whatever means necessary
Kress’ crusade has led him along a path, the past several years, widely out of public view. His work has tested potential DNA donors from two vegetables, a virus, a pig, and a synthetic gene manufactured in a laboratory. Unbeknownst to the world, the NYT reports that later this summer Kress “will plant several hundred more young trees with the spinach gene, in a new house.
In two years, if he wins regulatory approval, they will be ready to go into the ground. The trees could be the first to produce juice for sale in five years or so.”
According to the NYT, whether it is his transgenic tree or someone else’s, Kress insists, “Florida growers will soon have trees that could produce juice without fear of its being sour, or in short supply.”
What is the danger of the “Greening” disease?
C. liberibacter, the bacterium that has all but annihilated Florida’s citrus crop, chokes off the flow of nutrients and are spread by Asian citrus psyllids that can carry the germ a mile without stopping, and the females can lay up to 800 eggs in their one-month life. It was first detected more than a century ago in China and has earned a place, along with anthrax and the Ebola virus, on the Agriculture Department’s list of potential agents of bio terrorism.
When it first hit, Florida growers attempted to subdue the contagion known as “Greening” by chopping down hundreds of thousands of infected trees and by spraying a broad spectrum of pesticides on the lice that carries it. However, the disease could not be contained. It has thus been determined by University of Florida agricultural analysts that the Asian bug and bacteria has cost Florida $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs between 2006 and 2012.
Presently, there is no known cure for Greening disease. “In all of cultivated citrus, there is no evidence of immunity,” the plant pathologist heading a National Research Council task force on the disease said.
Does the New York Times really care about the health of its readers?
Although our hearts break for the thousands of people who have lost their jobs and for the unknown impact this orange crop devastation will have on the world as it continues to spread, our tempers boil against the New York Times for their highly biased representation of GMOs to their readers, of whom many are ignorant to the harmful realities related to GMOs.
Astoundingly, the NYT attempts to compare genetically modifying oranges to ancient breeding practices, something that they call “genetic merging.”
Because oranges themselves are hybrids and most seeds are clones of the mother, new varieties cannot easily be produced by crossbreeding – unlike, say, apples, which breeders have remixed into favorites like Fuji and Gala. But the vast majority of oranges in commercial groves are the product of a type of genetic merging that predates the Romans, in which a slender shoot of a favored fruit variety is grafted onto the sturdier roots of other species: lemon, for instance, or sour orange. And a seedless midseason orange recently adopted by Florida growers emerged after breeders bombarded a seedy variety with radiation to disrupt its DNA, a technique for accelerating evolution that has yielded new varieties in dozens of crops, including barley and rice.
Completely ignoring the inherent dangers of GMOs and confusing the process with conventional crossbreeding, the NYT states,
Even in the heyday of frozen concentrate, the popularity of orange juice rested largely on its image as the ultimate natural beverage, fresh-squeezed from a primordial fruit. But the reality is that human intervention has modified the orange for millenniums, as it has almost everything people eat.
In addition, the NYT times argues that, “Even conventional crossbreeding has occasionally produced toxic varieties of some vegetables.” The famed news source even insists that,
Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.
A nation divided
Supposedly, the scientific consensus holds that genetic engineering is the only solution to defeating Greening. “People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice,” one University of Florida scientist told Kress.
“And,” according to the NYT, “If the presence of a new gene in citrus trees prevented juice from becoming scarcer and more expensive, Kress believed, the American public would embrace it. ‘The consumer will support us if it’s the only way,’ Kress assured his boss.”
However is this true? Will the American consumer embrace the GM orange and feed GM juice to their children in the quantities that they are now?
According to the NYT,
If various polls were to be believed, a third to half of Americans would refuse to eat any transgenic crop. One study’s respondents would accept only certain types: two-thirds said they would eat a fruit modified with another plant gene, but few would accept one with DNA from an animal. Fewer still would knowingly eat produce that contained a gene from a virus.
Orange growers are still divided
Kress’s boss worried about damaging the image of juice long promoted as “100 percent natural.” “Do we really want to do this?” he demanded in a 2008 meeting at the company’s headquarters on the northern rim of the Everglades.
“The public will never drink G.M.O. orange juice,” one grower said at a contentious 2008 meeting. “It’s a waste of our money.”
“The public is already eating tons of G.M.O.’s,” countered Peter McClure, a big grower.
“This isn’t like a bag of Doritos,” snapped another. “We’re talking about a rawproduct, the essence of orange.”