Uncle Matt's Fights Orange Crop Disease Organically

News that a bacterial pathogen known as "citrus greening" is threatening Florida orange crops has shaken the orange juice industry. The disease is showing no signs of slowing down and farmers are essentially in a state of panic, using excessive amounts of herbicides and pesticides in hopes of at least stalling the spread of citrus greening. The infection (Candidatus Liberibacter) is transmitted by the invasive Asian citrus psyllids—an insect transferring the bacteria from tree to tree. The fruits then turn green and rot, costing orange farmers huge losses.

While chemicals seem to stall the disease at best, greening is more or less, uncontrollable. A recent New York Times article pointed to a possible defense that could be the only real savior: genetic modification. The idea of GMO oranges was not received well once the article hit the web, but even GMO-labeling advocate Tom Philpott (Mother Jones) wrote an article exploring the possibility, entitled "In Which I Actually Endorse One Use of GMOs."  


Granted, this isn't Monsanto at work to sell more pesticide and herbicide dependent crops. But it's still a genetically modified food. Scientists and researchers are working independently to develop an orange that can resist the bacteria. "GM technology offers promise, but no panacea," writes Philpott, and that may be the case. Creating an orange capable of fending off the infection may be a necessary evolutionary step in the orange's development. After all, the orange itself isn't a truly natural fruit (it's a hybrid between a pomelo and a mandarin).


But if genetic modification is the only option in saving orange crops from citrus greening, where does that leave the organic orange industry?

Read more about GMOs

I caught up with Matt McLean of Uncle Matt's Organic, makers of the best organic orange juice on the market. Matt is the CEO of the company and its founder. 

Naturally Savvy: Orange greening appears to be devastating Florida orange crops. How is it affecting organic orange growers? 

Matt McLean: We are being affected just like conventional growers. There is no cure for citrus greening disease at this stage. However, we have hope that organic methods will ultimately prevail as a solution to greening. The basic premise of organic farming is working with Mother Nature, not against it. We start by building a healthy soil, rich with biodiversity and beneficial bacteria and fungus. Those beneficial organisms enable the tree/grove to better uptake nutrition that boosts the tree's "immune system."  We are affected by greening, but we're seeing less fruit drop and less disease overall because of our organic farming methods. That said, there still is no cure.

NS: The New York Times recently ran an article on genetic modification of oranges as possibly being the best—even only—way to combat greening; how would that affect organic orange crops?

MM: The USDA bylaw does not allow organic farmers to use GMO seeds or anything genetically modified (not that we would use it even if it was permitted). So, in essence, organic orange crops wouldn't be affected.

NS: Are the GMO oranges avoidable, or are we facing an epidemic that will alter the orange industry forever?

MM: There is research being conducted on varying root stocks and scions that is showing natural resistance to greening. We believe that we will find greening resistant varieties and root stocks without having to go down the GMO road. Root stocks and scions exist now in nature that have shown strong resistance to greening. We have an old Temple orange block (subset of a grove) that has shown much promise in this research area.

We do believe the industry is facing an epidemic because this disease has proven difficult to cure. Greening will certainly change the industry for a long time to come.

NS: Would any organic growers be likely to switch to the GMO oranges but still use organic growing methods?

MM: We believe this is highly doubtful.

NS: Are there any management methods the organic orange industry is using to control greening that could be employed by the conventional orange industry?

MM: Absolutely, yes. And some are. There is more use of compost to build healthy soil, and an overall shift around the thinking of both foliar and soil nutrition to boost the plant's immune system. The mentality of traditional single factor analysis, "if there's a pest, find a pesticide," is changing.

NS: How can the consumers best protect themselves against excessive pesticide exposure or other chemicals used to treat greening? For example, do companies disclose this info on their site? Is there any labeling that helps consumers understand how the oranges have been treated, besides organic labels? Or are organic labels the only protection at this point? 

Read more about going organic

MM: Organic labels are the only protection at this point. If you want to ensure that no synthetic pesticides have been applied, choose organic. If a consumer wants to ensure that their food doesn't contain GMOs, buy organic.

NS: Thank you.

Image: Kyle McDonald

By Andrea Donsky| September 03, 2014
Categories:  Eat

About the Author

Andrea Donsky

Andrea Donsky

Founder & Chief Passionista at NaturallySavvy.com. See my full bio here.

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