Save Organic Citrus!

May 6, 2015 8:05 AM ET

Reimagine Money Blog

We are in the peak of citrus season here in California and while we’re all blissfully enjoying juicy doses of Vitamin C, you may not realize that the organic orange you’re biting into is on the verge of dying off from a disease called Citrus Greening. Jessica Shade, the Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center, has played an integral role researching the disease and is guest blogging this week to help explain what is happening to citrus and what people are doing about it. RSF Social Finance got involved in the citrus world through our borrower, Uncle Matt’s Organic, an organic orange juice company. Uncle Matt’s is collaborating with The Organic Center on this research project. Check out a previous blog post about their work here:

by Jessica Shade

Right now citrus trees are dying all around the country. Citrus greening disease has been killing off thousands of acres of citrus groves, and threatens to destroy domestic citrus production all together.

Citrus fruits are some of the most popular fruit in the United States. Orange juice can be found in almost 7 out of 10 American refrigerators, and Americans drink more than 550 million gallons of orange juice every year with more than 60 million gallons of that juice being organic.

Moms and dads are increasingly choosing organic fruit for their kids, assured that the fruit has not been sprayed with harmful toxic pesticides or has been genetically modified. Unfortunately, organic citrus production is in danger of disappearing from the United States because of the deadly citrus greening disease. Citrus greening has been devastating the citrus industry on a massive scale and is now threatening the very existence of the organic citrus sector.

The deadly citrus greening disease moves quickly, spread by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid, a small plant-feeding insect. Once a tree is infected, it cannot be cured. In the past ten years, citrus greening has wiped out 90,000 acres of citrus. As of yet there are no cures for citrus greening, and the tools we’ve been using have only had limited efficacy.

One of the most commonly used tools is treating the trees with high doses of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. These pesticides are being used to treat the disease on conventionally grown citrus. Unfortunately, the pesticide sprays are not very effective and are creating more harm in their wake. Immediately after a spray, the psyllid population will decrease, but they could rebound to levels above what they were before because the sprays are killing the psyllids natural predators like lady beetles (“ladybugs”). In addition, the sprays are causing large-scale bee die-offs. Bees pollinate 70% of our food, so fewer bees means lower availability of fruit and vegetables. To top it off, the psyllids are quickly developing resistance to the sprays. We’re losing what little control these chemicals provided for the disease.

What we need are solutions to citrus greening that are holistic and take multiple factors into account so they can continue to be effective in the long run without harming beneficial insects or causing other damage to the growing systems.

To address this RSF is helping fund a project with The Organic Center, who has teamed up with citrus growers, university researchers, and other non-profits to launch a large-scale project examining organic methods for preventing citrus greening.

Specifically, this research will look at:

  • Organic methods for controlling the Asian citrus psyllid without the use of toxic chemicals
  • Natural ways to breed organic citrus varieties that are resistant to the disease without the use of genetic engineering
  • Methods for ensuring natural predator health, like the lady beetles, while preventing Asian citrus psyllid spread

This information will be critical for providing growers around the country with the information they need to protect their citrus groves from collapse due to citrus greening. It will also be useful for policymakers in incorporating organic alternatives to Asian citrus psyllid control into area-wide treatment protocols. If it is not stopped, citrus greening may remove organic citrus from our diets, destroy countless farms, and significantly disrupt regional economies. Without further research on organic methods for controlling the disease, the entire domestic organic citrus sector may be wiped out.

Click here to learn more about this project, and check back on the Reimagine Money Blog in a few months for an update on the research study.

Jessica Shade started her involvement in the organic movement as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was a co-owner of the Kresge Natural Foods Cooperative. During her time there she developed a deep interest in the science supporting the environmental, public health, and cultural benefits of organic practices, and that passion followed her through her graduate career at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Integrative Biology.

In addition to scientific research, Dr. Shade is dedicated to food system science communication, collaboration, environmental education, and social equity and inclusion in the sciences. She has worked with several organizations to mentor under-represented students in the sciences and increase environmental science collaborations, such as Building Diversity in Science; Puente; the Biology Scholars Program; and Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability. She also founded and directed the Diversity Mentorship Program, which trains and mentors graduate students on inclusive teaching practices.

Dr. Shade is also interested in creative approaches to conducting and communicating environmental research. She has led panels on using artistic approaches to disseminating scientific research, as well as curating, designing, and participating in many environmentally themed art exhibits.