A few mornings ago, as I sipped my freshly squeezed glass of organic orange juice, I contemplated the menu for a gathering of friends I was hosting. My mind went first to dessert, which is often the case, and I fantasized of a buttery lemon tart, often delicate and bold with its balance of sweet and sour tang. I had a handful of Meyer lemons and could just imagine squeezing their sweet juices and grating their vibrant zest to fold gently into the cream and eggs. This tangy tartlet would pare well with orange and walnut encrusted quinoa cakes over lime cilantro wild rice. A salad of arugula, pistachios and grapefruit would accompany the simple meal. Organic citrus figured heavily in this planning and also weighed mightily on my mind. Sweet succulent citrus is under attack and organic citrus is especially in peril. I want to make sure my future feasts always include their iconic flavors.
The imminent threat has a big name; Huanglongbing (HLB), also called “citrus greening,” and it’s spread by an equally small bug only three to four millimeters long. First “discovered” in Brazil in 2004, the pesky Asian Citrus Psyllid has wreaked havoc across Asia, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, bringing death to millions of citrus trees. Since 2005, when it first reared its little head in Florida, the disease has spread causing yellowing leaves, blotchy mottle, twig die back, premature fruit drop and ultimately complete death of the tree and orchard. The picture it paints is of an orchard in complete and utter ruin.
What is being done to save the industry and specifically the organic producers so my dinner menu remains intact for years to come? Since Organic citrus is a mere 1% of the total in Florida and Texas and perhaps 2% in California, organic fruit that’s being equally hard hit will become much impacted in expense and availability. Citrus famers and associations have literally been scrambling to keep up with this menace. Many of the inputs and sprays used to combat the disease are conventional and, if a citrus producer is forced to use these methods to save the orchard, the crop is rendered non-organic. It was just a few weeks ago that the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) finally announced the approval of an organic treatment option in Tulare County, a major citrus-growing region in Central California. The Citrus Research and Development Foundation has received over 170 proposals to combat the disease but, sadly, most are for conventional methods. Research for new and effective organic options is desperately needed to save our organic citrus industry!
The Organic Center hears the call of our industry and is uniting forces to combat citrus greening in organic production. The UNFI Foundation board, realizing how iconic and important organic citrus is, has pledged funding to kick start The Organic Center project. It aims to research and determine the efficacy of organic methods for controlling the devastating Asian citrus Psyllid. The project was undertaken in collaboration with Ben McLean, of Uncle Matt’s Organic. It will focus on field tests examining sprays of labeled organic insecticides and sprays of biological materials. This critical information will be extremely important for organic growers across the country so they can protect their citrus groves from collapse. It will also be valuable for policymakers as we move forward and incorporate organic alternatives in new treatment protocols.
Many producers have family orchards with decades-long investments in nurturing and caring for their trees. Citrus orchards take years to come to full maturity and the organic process takes three years to earn certification and the organic seal. Citrus greening can take out an orchard in less than one year.
You can join The Organic Center and the UNFI Foundation in fighting this disease in organic citrus. Both organizations have easy methods to receive donations. Don’t allow conventional research to overshadow the unique needs of our organic producers. Spread the word on this phenomenon so organic consumers can rally around the cause. Let’s keep organic citrus alive and healthy and, most importantly, on the menu! Now I must get cooking!