Nature’s Secrets

Disease vs. science in orange juice war

September 2, 2013 

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

The word “orange” comes from the French term “or,” meaning “gold.” As a legacy of childhood for most baby boomers, no day starts without a glass of orange juice. I recall my mom’s daily ritual of defrosting a frozen can of concentrated juice, then adding three parts water to one part concentrate. Thanks to 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 a hurried shopper. In her book, “Squeezed,” author Alissa Hamilton of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy demystifies some of the complexities of the OJ world.

She explains the 11 processed variations of OJ according to the federal code: 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. Not surprisingly, a consumer is easily fooled by the diversity of technical descriptions for this all-American breakfast food. In addition to varying federal definitions, manufacturers create their own labeling that adds further confusion, including terms such as “gently pasteurized” versus “flash pasteurized” versus “ultra-pasteurized,” or “not from concentrate” versus “simply orange.”

In addition to the jargon, a more recent threat to our breakfast ritual is the invasion of a bacterium that renders oranges both sour and half-green. Though the outbreak has been global for some years, the disease called “citrus greening” has now invaded America. Of central Florida’s half-million acres of orange groves, many have already been 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, by creating genetic resistance in the lab.

The challenge – to beat an invasive bacterium and produce a resistant strain of oranges in rapid timeline – will likely require extraordinary scientific expertise. And, from an ecological perspective, genetic modification of oranges may be less detrimental to the environment and more economical over the long term. In the absence of a genetically modified orange, the industry is looking at tripling its pesticide applications to kill the insect responsible for transmitting the disease.

Orange juice lovers, take note: The fate of your breakfast is in the hands of agricultural scientists, working around the clock to save the world’s orange crops.

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.

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