Researchers say GMO citrus trees could combat greening

10/08/2013 12:52:00 PM
Tom Burfield

Mirkov says his program must go through an extensive approval process, which will include three federal agencies—the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

“As our research progresses, the regulatory approval process is in place and moving forward,” Kress says, adding that approval could take two to four years.

Other research financed by growers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also is being conducted, including developing a genetically modified orange. And Kress says he’ll be pleased to find any solution.

New front

Even if the program does produce a tree that is immune to citrus greening, the battle may switch to another front.

Polls indicate that up to one-half of U.S. consumers say they will not eat transgenic food despite studies by the government and other researchers that say it poses no threat to humans or the environment.

“If it works, there’s got to be consumer education and consumer understanding, and there’s got to be the necessary work done to show that it’s safe,” Kress says. “That’s all part of the process.”

The industry will have a better understanding of how the public might react to the concept of GMOs and citrus after the Public Issues Education Center at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at Gainesville releases the results of a public opinion survey in November.

That survey is designed to determine the public’s perception of GMOs as they relate to citrus and citrus greening disease, says Tracy Irani, the center’s director.

Before genetically altered citrus is marketed, she says, “We’ll need to do a good job of measuring what the public’s perception is about GMOs because it changes over time.”

“We don’t really know what the general viewpoint is of the public,” she says.

There likely are a range of opinions.

The fact that GMOs and citrus may have a direct benefit to consumers in terms of lower prices and increased availability may raise more interest than other programs that result in indirect benefits, such as herbicide tolerance or pest resistance, she says.

“The greening aspect provides an opportunity for scientists to talk about what they know,” she adds.

Growers likely will be willing to plant genetically modified trees if they’re shown to be effective against citrus greening as long as consumers accept them, says Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual.

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