Going Green, Collapsing Citrus, and Blood Avocados

For decades, Florida was the undisputed citrus capital of the world. The state’s groves produced 70% of oranges in the United States as of 2011. These fruits were central to the daily routines of most Americans. At one point, more than 75% of American refrigerators contained orange juice. Florida’s beloved breakfast beverage was marketed as “liquid sunshine” and was to breakfast what fireworks were to Independence Day.

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The citrus industry in Florida today is on the verge of complete collapse. A 2005 outbreak of a bacterial disease known by its Chinese name Huanglongbing has spread like wildfire through the sunshine state and now infects almost all citrus groves. Known more commonly as “citrus greening disease,” the bacteria begins in a tree’s roots and slowly chokes off nutrients from reaching the fruit. Leaves wilt, the fruit turns green and sour, and eventually the tree dies. It is transmitted from tree to tree via the Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect that specifically targets citrus.

As a result, this year Florida is expected to produce 66% fewer oranges than it did before the outbreak a decade ago, reaching the lowest level of output since 1964. Since 2007, the industry revenues have declined by $1 billion each year due to the disease.

Most attempts to roll back the disease within an infected tree have failed. Thermotherapy that heats the trees in tents to 100 degrees for several days merely extends the tree’s life by a few years. Scientists are now focusing on the next generation of trees. Efforts include raising genetically modified citrus trees and even the introduction of parasitic Pakistani wasps that target the disease-transmitting psyllid. The State Agriculture Commissioner is seeking millions to help continue to fight the disease.

Given that America’s love affair with orange juice was already waning (concerns over sugar, changing breakfast habits, and lots of competitive offerings) independent of the disease, might Florida’s greening be an opportunity? Consider that while orange juice consumption plunges, avocado consumption is skyrocketing. In the last 15 years, America’s per capita consumption of avocados has risen from 1.1 to almost 6 pounds per year.

Given adequate local water supply, developed infrastructure, and the cooperative climate, could avocados save Florida’s agriculture industry? Granted, Florida’s avocados are not as fatty or creamy as the Mexican Haas variety, but they’re also not generating armed conflict. The US imports more than $1 billion of Haas avocados from Mexico’s Michoacán, a state plagued by gang warfare over the revenues generated by what locals call “oro verde” (green gold). Might Americans’ insatiable appetites for guacamole save the Sunshine State?

 

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