Saving the orange by altering its DNA


Burning infected trees

The call Ricke Kress and every other citrus grower in Florida dreaded came while he was driving.

“It’s here” was all his grove manager needed to say to force him over to the side of the road.

The disease that sours oranges and leaves them half green, already ravaging citrus crops across the world, had reached the state’s storied groves. Mr. Kress, the president of Southern Gardens Citrus, in charge of two and a half million orange trees and a factory that squeezes juice for Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, sat in silence for several long moments…“O.K.,” he said finally on that fall day in 2005, “let’s make a plan.”

In the years that followed, he and the 8,000 other Florida growers who supply most of the nation’s orange juice poured everything they had into fighting the disease they call citrus greening.

To slow the spread of the bacterium that causes the scourge, they chopped down hundreds of thousands of infected trees and sprayed an expanding array of pesticides on the winged insect that carries it. But the contagion could not be contained.

They scoured Central Florida’s half-million acres of emerald groves and sent search parties around the world to find a naturally immune tree that could serve as a new progenitor for a crop that has thrived in the state since its arrival, it is said, with Ponce de León. But such a tree did not exist.

“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.

In all of citrus, but perhaps not in all of nature. With a precipitous decline in Florida’s harvest predicted within the decade, the only chance left to save it, Mr. Kress believed, was one that his industry and others had long avoided for fear of consumer rejection. They would have to alter the orange’s DNA — with a gene from a different species.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an excellent article on the battle to save Florida’s citrus crops. Though Monsanto represents genomic crop research about as much as Ted Nugent represents American rock music – we often see the worst of capitalist robber barons accepted on the Left as defining contemporary botanical science. And that just ain’t so.

There is no more justification on the Left than there is on the Right for opportunism. Admittedly, I don’t get upset over Republicans and conservatives letting themselves be overwhelmed by the bigotry of the Tea Party and other looney brigades. I can rationalize it away and say they deserve the diseases they catch from those they’re in bed with. But, the Left faces a comparable danger of anti-science, anti-intellectualism, Luddite behavior from that segment of environmentalism that treats the world as a religious temple rather than the sum of knowable processes.

From that first Earth Day I attended in Amherst, Mass, I have counted environmental activism as part of the responsibilities I accept as a concerned human being. That concern includes educated, material and scientific grounding for the positions I fight for.

A long, detailed and accurate article worth reading. Take the time.

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