Don't ban chemicals that could save oranges
Aug. 28, 2013
Orange growers have been desperately battling a disease that could wipe out the U.S. citrus industry, and "Made in America" orange juice along with it. In 2005, "citrus greening" showed up in Florida orange groves. Named for the stunted, unripe fruit that infected trees produce, the disease is spread when Asian citrus psyllids (which looks like a cicada's ugly little sister) feed on citrus trees. There is no cure.
Waiting for science
"The long and short of it is that the industry that made Florida, that is synonymous with Florida … is totally threatened," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told The New York Times. "If we don't find a cure, it will eliminate the citrus industry." He has helped secure $11 million in research money to combat the disease.
Some in the industry have pinned their hopes on the development of a genetically engineered orange variety that would be immune to the disease. In pursuing this solution, they're following the path that led to salvation for the Hawaiian papaya industry. Devastated by the ringspot virus in the 1990s, the industry was nearly wiped out until resistant varieties of papaya were developed through genetic engineering.
But these solutions take time, even for a cultural icon. That's the one resource that orange growers don't have. "We are to the point now that to stay alive in this type of environment, you have to be on top of it 24/7," grower Mark Wheeler told The Times, citing a 30 percent to 40 percent crop loss a year for some orchards.
To date, the only treatment that works in slowing down the spread of citrus greening is killing the psyllids before they can infect trees. The best defense has come from application of a class of pesticide called neonicotinoids.
"Neonic crop protection for citrus is currently the only thing we have that can ensure the U.S. citrus industry survives citrus greening long enough to be rescued by (genetic engineering) technology," professor Michael Rogers of the University of Florida told me. "Using neonics to protect young trees buys the time we need to develop a genetically engineered citrus tree, prove its biological and commercial viability, gain regulatory approvals and plant it on a commercial scale."
Tug of war
But if anti-agriculture technology activists have their way, the last-ditch pesticide would be banned. Some groups oppose its use as a matter of principle. Others, such as Beyond Pesticides and the Center for Food Safety, believe that the chemicals harm bees. The fact that many of the same groups fighting the pesticide are also fighting the kind of genetic engineering that would displace it show where they are really coming from.
At the same time that these groups have sued the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the pesticide, Florida growers have successfully lobbied the agency to allow greater application of the pesticide.
Working in Africa on malaria issues, I have seen what happens when governments act on ideology by banning chemicals that provide an imperfect solution before a better solution arrives. It is not pretty. We shouldn't repeat those mistakes.
Richard Tren is director of Africa Fighting Malaria.