Genetic Engineering for HLB – the Growers’ Role

Ernie NeffCitrus Greening, Genetic Engineering, HLB Management

HLB, genetic engineering
HLB, genetic engineering

Kevin Folta

Citrus growers can play a vital role in promoting genetic engineering as a partial solution to HLB, University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Department Chairman Kevin Folta says. He summarizes a message he delivered to about 40 at a Highlands County OJ break in Sebring on November 17.

“There are many great innovations at the University of Florida and other places” that could potentially help remedy HLB and other citrus problems, Folta says. “The big issue is they’re locked away in laboratories with no real evidence that they’ll ever come out and solve the problems. And that’s mostly because we haven’t spoken out about them with the public in a very clear way.”

If consumers understand the demand for genetic engineering, they can influence policymakers to allow technology that is beneficial to the citrus industry, he adds. “The big trick is, our regulatory climate right now is strangling, and consumers are afraid of the technology. And that’s because as an agricultural industry, as producers, as well as scientists, we haven’t been very good at the way we talk about this technology.” He says anti-genetic engineering forces have used “completely fake data,” misinterpreted real data intentionally and made up data. “So it’s very difficult for someone who’s just looking for an answer about what to feed their family. It’s very difficult for them to know what to believe and who to trust.”

“What we have to do as ag producers is discuss with them – the people in the middle – what the technology is and what it isn’t, what are the relative risks and benefits,” Folta says. “Genetic engineering is simply a precise extension of traditional breeding. We’re changing in ways that we can predict versus ways that were rather random just in traditional breeding. Everything that we eat has been changed by humans in one way or another.” He says farmers can tell that story and be believed because “people have huge high regard for farmers. They just are uncomfortable with farming.” So, Folta says, farmers need to remind people “that their job is … to produce a safe, affordable and wholesome product.”

Social media is a great way for farmers to get their message to consumers, Folta says. Citrus growers can simply tell their story via social media, including what their grove was like before and after HLB and tell what additional inputs are needed because of HLB. “Just those heartfelt stories from people who are credible have tremendous ability to sway public opinion,” he says. “And right now it’s just not there in sufficient quantity.”

Growers need to ensure that consumers know their values, which include wanting sustainable agriculture with less environmental impact. “Start there, tell the story” and then show how genetic engineering is one part of the solution, he says.

Finally, Folta says genetic engineering will provide trees that are resistant to HLB. “The question is not if; the question is when” he says, adding that HLB-resistant trees will be available within a decade. “Whether or not that will be here fast enough to make a big difference is really the question,” he says.

The OJ break was hosted by Laurie Hurner, Highlands County citrus Extension agent and county Extension director.

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Ernie Neff

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large