A Deadly Disease Is Coming For California Fruit

As of 2016, Florida production accounted for an average of 75% of the U.S. orange crop, according to research done by UC Davis. At the time, California accounted for only 25% of the crop on average. But in recent years, that script has flipped. In 2019-2020, California grew 62% of the U.S. orange crop (per Axios). Meanwhile, Florida's 2022-2023 growing season's crop is predicted to be the lowest yield seen in 75 years (via ABC 7).

So what happened? How did Florida go from being an orange-growing behemoth producing 250 million 90-pound boxes of oranges annually, as they did in the mid-2000s, to this year's projected production of just 41.2 million boxes?

There's one main culprit: A disease called citrus greening has decimated the Florida orange tree population. According to the University of Florida, this bacterial disease, caused by the Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacterium, is spread from tree to tree by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. The disease is also known as Huanglongbing or simply HLB. More than half of Florida orange trees have died of this disease, ABC 7 reports. Now, this green scourge is coming for California's crop. If we aren't careful, no one will need to worry about what happens when you eat too many oranges.

The fight for California's citrus groves

Oranges are one of California's largest agricultural exports, but that may change in the coming years. Once trees become infected with citrus greening, they rarely survive (via ABC 7). While the trees still produce fruit, Food & Wine notes that the fruit is green with a bitter or "rancid taste" and is completely unusable. According to Victoria Hornbaker, Director of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Division (CPDPD) at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the disease is currently relegated to backyard growers. While it has devastated the Florida orange crop in particular, all citrus crops are susceptible to this fatal disease. The disease is harmless to humans and animals. Citrus greening began its campaign of devastation with backyard growers in Florida, and there's also been previous cases in China, Brazil, and Texas, says Slate.

Scientists, growers, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture are doing everything they can to prevent the same thing from happening in California. CPDPD has workers scouring backyards for infected plants. Hornbaker keeps a list of infected trees and a rigorously updated map. Scientist Hailing Jin has recently "isolated a peptide" from the (often pricey) finger lime tree, which isn't affected by the disease. It can be administered to other trees like a vaccine, or even an antibiotic. There's hope that she will be able to get the treatment off the ground within the next few years. But in the meantime, it's "boots on the ground," as Hornbaker puts it, destroying infected trees.