Genetic engineering may the only thing that can save the world’s oranges

There's a virulent disease destroying orange trees around the world, and growers are facing a hard choice — genetically engineer the orange to survive this plague, or possibly see the fruit, and their livelihood, disappear.

The disease, called Citrus Greening (or Huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease), is a bacteria that was first reported in China in the early 20th century, and it's spread by tiny insects called Asian citrus psyllids. Orange trees infected by this bacteria drop their leaves, and their fruit becomes stunted. There's no pesticide that can control the psyllids that carry the disease (they quickly adapted to the ones we have), and there's no treatment for the disease itself. The only way to 'treat' an infection is to quarantine the area and burn the infected trees. However, even those efforts aren't helping much. This disease has spread throughout the southern United States, Mexico and Central America, Brazil, southeast Asia and western Africa, threatening crops from the largest orange producers in the world.

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One source of hope, it seems, is genetic engineering.

According to a New York Times article from this past weekend (which I highly recommend reading), growers in Florida have been looking into genetic engineering since 2005, but despite some promising results so far, they are understandably worried about public reaction.

Genetically-modified organisms — 'GMOs' — have a very bad reputation with the public these days. It's hard to even mention them without someone speaking of the evils of Monsanto, or hearing the word 'frankenfood', or about how genetically-modified foods cause any number of illnesses and diseases. Given that it's our health and our lives that we're talking about, being concerned about what we're being given to eat is understandable.

However, historically, we've been genetically modifying our crops and livestock for centuries, if not millennia. It's been done through cross-breeding and cross-pollination, with mixed results. The point is, though, that it's very unlikely that anything we eat these days has gone without some kind of human manipulation at some point. New techniques of directly changing the DNA of the plant or animal cause more concerns, though, with talk of splicing in animal DNA into plants.

Take it from a self-proclaimed hippy who thinks Monsanto is evil, though, that's not what scientists are doing. They create artificial genes based on what they see in animal genes, rather than splicing animal genes directly into plant DNA. That may not help someone's perception of what's going on, since it still impacts how 'natural' a food is, but in that case, I'll simply point back to the start of the previous paragraph. Also, another point this 'hippy' makes is that the more 'natural' cross-breeding methods are no safer than directly altering DNA (in fact, the more direct method is the safer of the two).

The science speaks on behalf of GMOs as well. The American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote last October that "the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and 'every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.'"

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As it stands now, genetically-modified crops are used the world over, as they get better, faster yields, they're more resistant to disease and pests, and some are even more nutritious than 'natural' versions. Without this kind of genetic modification to our food, we will likely see an increase in problems in the future, as the warming planet causes diseases and insects to spread, and our continued use of pesticides simply makes them stronger.

As for the oranges, the Florida growers have a possible solution to the problem of Citrus Greening. It involved taking a gene from the spinach plant, which produces a protein that attacks bacteria attempting to infect the plant, and splicing that gene into the orange trees. This gene, or genes very similar, exist naturally in many forms of plant and animal life. It just so happens that orange trees aren't included in that list.

So far, this new orange tree has prevailed against the bacteria in closed greenhouse tests alongside unmodified trees that are being ravaged by the disease. It will take another two years before the growers know if they have regulatory approval for these trees (and thus be able to plant them in the ground), and it will be another three years after that before they produce any fruit for harvesting. The growers don't know if anyone will buy the fruit or drink the juice from it, but they still have high hopes.

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