Our Favorite Breakfast Beverage Is Under Siege

A few months back at a family reunion, my mom and I seriously considered hiding the orange juice from the rest of our relatives. We were in Florida, drinking delicious, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and we really didn’t want to share with the 20 relatives we were staying with.

It was just so good.

Fortunately, our better judgment prevailed, and we did share. And then went to the market to buy more.

My family is not alone in our love of orange juice. Americans drank almost 1.2 billion gallons of O.J. in 2010.

But one of America’s favorite breakfast staples is under threat. May 4 is National Orange Juice Day and an ideal chance to learn about a disease known as Huanglongbing (HLB for short), or citrus greening, and how it is devastating the American orange crop.

The disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a pest that feeds on leaves and stems of citrus trees. Fruit grown on infected trees tends to be green, bitter and unusable for eating or juicing. Infected trees normally die within a few years.

Millions of acres of oranges worldwide have been destroyed by HLB. Florida has been hit hard. A recent study in Florida found 90 percent of the state's 501,396 commercial citrus acres have at least some HLB. 

Fortunately, scientists have identified tools to help protect our oranges. A class of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, is helping to keep orange trees safe from citrus greening. The pesticide is placed at the base of a young citrus tree’s trunk.

“This enables the chemical to be taken up through the roots, which keeps it from affecting other flying insects or pollinators, as spraying can,” Henry Miller, the former director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, explained in the Miami Herald.

Scientists are hopeful that soon genetic engineering will provide a more permanent solution to citrus greening. In 2015, the EPA gave the go-ahead for more research on a strain of genetically engineered orange trees. The trees contain spinach genes that make them more resistant to HLB.

The fruit tastes and looks just like non-genetically modified oranges.

"Using neonics to protect young trees buys the time we need to develop a genetically engineered citrus tree,” professor Michael Rogers of the University of Florida told USA TODAY.

While early results are promising, it will likely be years before a genetically engineered orange tree is on the market. In the meantime, neonicotinoids will help keep our favorite breakfast beverage on the table.

Elizabeth Held is a director at the White House Writers Group, where she advises food and agriculture clients.