Friday, September 15, 2023

Florida's orange crop going the way of the dinosaurs (and bananas)

I had no idea, but apparently Florida's orange crop has been decimated in recent years. The culprit? A bacteria with the unlikely name of huanglongbing (HLB), more commonly known as "citrus greening". 

As the name maybe suggests, the bacterial disease has been known in China for nearly a hundred years, but it has only arrived in Florida since 2005. It has also been seen in Texas and California, as well as in some other citrus-producing countries like Brazil, although not quite as disastrously as in Florida. Florida's orange crop is expected to total about 16 million 90-lb boxes this year, compared to 240 million in 2004, a drop of about 93% by my calculations.

The disease is spread by a tiny bug called the Asian citrus psyllid, and there seems to be little that can be done about it (pesticides seem to kill more good bacteria than bad). The bacteria from the bug's saliva chokes the flow of sugar and minerals in citrus trees, causing their fruit to not ripen properly, and ultimately killing the trees in 5-20 years (usually 8-10 years), depending on the maturity of the trees, which would normally live for around 50 years.

This, together with increasingly frequent and destructive hurricanes, a higher likelihood of damaging frosts, and high land prices in Florida, have led many citrus farmers to abandon their citrus farms and sell up. The inventory of citrus groves in the state is less than half what it was 25 years ago, and the value of the orange crop just a third of its value a decade ago. It is the major industry and top employer in large swaths of central Florida.

So, enjoy your cheap orange juice while you can. It may not be around for much longer (along with bananas!)

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