Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Rescuing an OJ tradition

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A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician; he is a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales. — Marie Curie

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegThe word orange comes from the French term, “or,” meaning gold. For most baby boomers, as a legacy of childhood, no day starts without a glass of orange juice. I recall my mom’s daily ritual of defrosting a frozen can of concentrated juice, and then adding three parts water to one part concentrate. Thanks to Anita Bryant and her television ads, we were convinced it was fresh-from-the-tree-via-the- freezer. But a recent glimpse at the supermarket aisle proves otherwise.

Myriad varieties of orange juice exist, and their actual composition is not clearly labeled for the average, hurried shopper. The Federal Code identifies 11 processed variations of orange juice — frozen orange juice, pasteurized orange juice, canned orange juice, reduced acid frozen concentrated orange juice, canned concentrated orange juice, orange juice for manufacturing, orange juice with preservative, concentrated orange juice for manufacturing, and concentrated orange juice with preservative.

In her book called “Squeezed,” author Alissa Hamilton from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy explains some of the complexities of the OJ world. Not surprisingly, the consumer could be easily fooled by the diversity of technical descriptions for this all-American breakfast food. In addition to varying federal definitions, the manufacturers create their own labeling that adds further confusion, including terms such as gently pasteurized versus ultra-pasteurized, only-juice versus almost-juice, or “not from concentrate” versus “simply orange.”

In addition to the jargon itself, another recent threat to our breakfast OJ ritual is the invasion of a bacterium that renders oranges both sour and half-green. Although the outbreak has been global for some years, the disease “citrus greening” only recently spread into Florida. It now threatens to destroy the state’s entire industry. Of central Florida’s half-million acres of orange groves, many have already been cleared and burned in efforts to stop the spread.

Agricultural scientists are working around the clock to halt the invasion by either finding a resistant strain of orange trees, or more likely to create genetic resistance in the laboratory. If the latter is the case, then OJ may join the growing cadre of “frankenfoods” or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) available for human consumption. (Technically, many oranges are already genetically modified, such as some seedless varieties that are the result of radiation which disrupts the DNA of a seeded variety.)

But the current challenge — to beat an invasive bacterium and produce a resistant strain of oranges in rapid timeline — will likely require extraordinary scientific responses, and that is likely to include genetic modifications. From an ecological perspective, this may be less invasive to the Florida landscape and more economical over the long term.

In the absence of a genetically modified orange tree, the industry is looking at tripling its pesticide applications in attempts to kill the bacteria-carrying insect responsible for transmitting citrus greening. For any orange juice lovers, the fate of their breakfast lies in the hands of agricultural and genetic scientists, working around the clock to save the world’s orange crops.

Many Americans cannot start their day without orange juice. The challenge of providing food for billions of people becomes increasingly complex, and oranges are no exception.

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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