What do genetically modified citrus trees mean for the Florida industry?


Still years out from a fix for HLB, biotechnology offers a possible solution

IT’S NOT a silver bullet, but genetically modified citrus trees could prove the most effective of the many tools developed by the University of Florida so far for the salvation of the citrus industry in the HLB era. The transgenic citrus trees developed by Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers could even have impact far beyond the citrus industry. It could be a game-changer in public acceptance of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

We know that once a technology is developed in the lab, it can take years, even decades, before the public embraces it. A scientific consensus (National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the World Health Organization, to name a few) backs the assertion that GMO food is as safe to eat as conventionally grown food.

The public doesn’t comb through peer-reviewed literature. They sometimes see GMOs through the lens of activist groups raising health scares, state ballot referenda calling for labeling GMO foods, and restaurant chains touting their GMO-free menus (excepting, of course, their beverages sweetened by corn syrup made with GMO ingredients).

It can make people wary of the new and unfamiliar, and raises the age-old bogeyman of unintended consequences of new technology. These people are farmers’ customers. So even if growers are comfortable with the science, to make use of the technology that could help them produce healthier and more abundant food, they face a marketing challenge. Farming is a business, not a social experiment. Farmers can’t afford to produce a GMO crop if no one will buy it.

We at UF/IFAS have experienced the consequences of advancing the science of GMOs. One of my horticulturalists has had his reputation attacked by activists because of his work to educate the public about GMOs. They are now seeking access to thousands of my emails after I came to his defense.

Activists have also sought to force us to release pinpoint locations of where we do GMO work. In the face of such pressures, UF/IFAS continues to deliver innovation that improves Florida’s economy, public health, and environmental protection. Jude Grosser and Manjul Dutt’s biotechnology work is an example of how we lead the way in research and the payoff of investment in that research.

A GMO citrus tree offers the opportunity to make the case for science, at least among Floridians or anyone who enjoys a morning glass of OJ. Growers of the state’s 300 commodities may be skittish about GMOs, primarily because of worries about consumer perception. For citrus growers, though, it may be an existential question. In other words, it could be GMOs or the end of an industry.

We don’t know yet whether Grosser and Dutt have a GMO tree that completely changes the economics of citrus. While the tree shows great promise of tolerance to HLB, it’s not bulletproof. The question will be whether this tree — still years away from commercial production — is tolerant enough of HLB that it brings down runaway production costs. Those costs contribute to OJ prices that are more than double that of gasoline.

Biotechnology has the chance to play the hero here. If it can play a role in rescuing citrus, it moves the public discussion of GMOs beyond the best way to produce a particular food and offers an example of whether certain foods can be profitably produced without it.

Oranges have long occupied a special place in Florida. We don’t have state departments of tomatoes, watermelons, or peppers. We do for citrus.

The consumer jury is still out. Non-scientists have muddled the public understanding of the potential tremendous benefits from biotechnology.

It’s my hope that Grosser and Dutt’s work is a breakthrough discovery, but a message, too. Biotechnology is vital to our agricultural future and a key to preserving our heritage.

CREDIT

article by JACK PAYNE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Email: jackpayne@ufl.edu Follow: @JackPayneIFAS