Oranges are, by far, America’s number one fruit. But in the last few years a mysterious die-off has been hitting the groves—and it’s spreading fast.
The latest numbers on American orange production are out from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the news is not good for breakfast or Vitamin C fans alike. Since 2012, more than a third of all American oranges have died out—and the numbers get even grimmer if you look at just Florida, which has lost about half its crop in that time.
So what’s going on? Like almonds, IPAs, coffee, and steak before them, are oranges another casualty of the drought? Well, it certainly isn’t helping—orange farmers, especially in California, have been seeing some oddly-messy, split-up green oranges due to the stop-and-start nature of water in the state these days.
But drought isn’t the biggest problem: It’s a fast-spreading, fatal, and incurable disease called citrus greening that’s sweeping through orange orchards.
Top image: Florida orange grove / USDA, ARS; Bottom Picture: Citrus greening in action in Florida / University of Florida Extension
The disease first showed up in Florida all the way back in 1998, so why is its appearance in our orange crop now such a big deal?
Part of it is simply that oranges are so important right now in terms of what America eats. Oranges are America’s most consumed fruit (thanks, largely, to juice-drinkers). They’re also remarkably hardy as fresh food, they travel well to areas where fruit and vegetable availability is limited, and have unusually good shelf-lives for fresh fruit.
But the free-fall in citrus production is a progressively worsening problem because citrus greening takes out not just the fruit, but the whole tree. Once a tree has it, noting can be done—though some potential new cures are currently being evaluated. Worse, greening highly contagious. When greening appears, quarantine is really the only current option, and so far it’s only been successful at slowing, but not stopping, the spread. The entire state of Florida has been under quarantine since 2008,which was later extended through Georgia and other scattered areas of the country—and greening is still steadily killing off orange groves.
Map: Quarantined areas for citrus crops / APHIS
The only good news is that this latest set of numbers is the first set in 5 years where the numbers are holding steady instead of falling even further. Still, to get orange production back to where it was, we wouldn’t just need to stop the bleeding; we’d need to see a wholesale recovery. And, since greening not only continues to spread, but has also killed off a good percentage of existing trees, the more likely result is some very bad times ahead for oranges.
Follow the author at @misra.