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Florida's Citrus Groves Might Be Wiped Out by Bug First Detected in Broward

Orange juice -- who doesn't love it? Cold glass in the morning, with a fifth of vodka in the evening. Nature's nectar. Well, can you imagine a world without it? Without oranges at all?

Cue the sad music, because that just might be where we're heading, with oranges inching closer to the endangered species list, thanks to a plague of bacteria shooting through Florida's beloved groves. The disease is piggybacking on a small bug that was originally discovered in Broward back in 1998, making our ZIP code ground zero for the problem.

The Washington Post ran a piece on the situation this weekend. The critter in question, the Asian citrus psyllid, is originally from China.

Two years later, the psyllid had spread to 31 other counties, the Post reports. Then, in 2005, entomologist Susan Halbert was standing in a grove south of Miami when she noticed a sickly-looking tree. After some sleuthing, she discovered the plant had been struck with an incurable Chinese bacterial infection called huanglongbing ("yellow dragon disease").

And huanglongbing is the culprit crippling the state's orange groves today, hitting the roots and causing fruit to drop early from the trees. According to the Post's report, half the trees in the orchards across the state are suffering from huanglongbing. The bacteria travels on the psyllid.

Seeing how Florida's citrus groves are responsible for 80 percent of the country's OJ (and total up to a $9 billion business in the state), the bacterial infection could mean a serious hit in business. It's estimated 90,000 citrus acres have been knocked off due to the huanglongbing. It has shown up in other parts of the country as well as in South America. With so much of the industry suffering from the infection, insiders are beginning to worry about what this means for the overall supply moving forward.

"What's at stake is orange juice on the breakfast table," a trade association executive told the Post. "I don't want to indicate that's going to happen next year. With a ten-year decline, your supply will reduce."

So far, no solution to the psyllid-hauled bacteria has been found, despite an industrywide scramble to do so. One option scientists are toying with is the idea of fruit genetically modified to be impervious to the bacteria -- a solution that may not sit well with consumers used to a morning glass of fresh-squeezed natural juice.

Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Swenson.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson

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