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Opinion | Oranges just the latest food hit by climate change. They won’t be the last


Of course, pests and inclement weather have waged a steady battle against farmers for centuries, attacking staples such as wheat, cassava, maize and cotton. As far back as the 1800s, blight caused the Irish potato famine and the phylloxera epidemic destroyed many vineyards in Europe. And today, pests destroy up to 20 per cent of the world’s crops every year, at an annual cost of around US$220 billion.

But global warming and the pests that thrive on a warmer planet are steadily making things worse.

In Brazil, cultivator of over a third of the world’s oranges and by far the biggest exporter of orange juice at 70 per cent, experts are warning of a crash in orange production and sharply higher prices for the growing season. Brazil’s orange crop is expected to fall by 24 per cent from the previous harvest in what will be its smallest since the 1980s. Global orange juice prices – already close to double a year ago – are rising ever higher.

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“The crippling shortages have raised fears of a price rise that will hit consumers and fundamentally reshape the global orange juice industry,” said the Financial Times in a report last month.

The global citrus crop has always been volatile, buffeted by floods, droughts and hurricanes. For instance, Florida’s citrus economy, which used to be the world’s largest, has been falling for two decades, from about 240 million boxes of oranges to just 17 million now. But recent declines appear more systemic than cyclical, and seem tougher to tackle.

Of particular concern to farmers is citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease also known as huanglongbing, literally “yellow dragon sickness” because of the yellowing of leaves on infected plants.
The Chinese name is a reminder that China – as with so many things – appears to be the birthplace of oranges and the rest of the citrus family. Citrus fruits have been grown in China for more than 2,000 years, mainly centred on Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang province, with 27 species recorded. They were eventually brought out to Iran and the Mediterranean, and from there to the rest of the world.
Farmers load tangerines into the truck for delivery ahead of the Lunar New Year at a flower farm in Lam Tsuen, Tai Po, Hong Kong, on January 31. Photo: Elson Li

Given the longevity of citrus in China, it is perhaps not surprising that huanglongbing was first reported there in 1943 – a tiny bacterium carried by psyllids, or plant lice. Infected trees lose their leaves, produce deformed oranges that are bitter and hard, and eventually die – there is no known cure. It is thought to have first reached Florida in 2005 and has spread to at least 33 countries, infecting over 100 million trees.

Alongside climate change, huanglongbing has, in the past five years alone, cut the global orange juice production by 29 per cent. Nowhere in the world has been spared except Australia, which is anyway only a small supplier.

As orange farmers struggle with the spread and impact of the bacterium, they have sought to mix orange juice with other citrus juices. Unfortunately, huanglongbing is infecting all citrus crops – from mandarins, lemons and limes to pomelo and grapefruit – so other solutions are having to be sought. Manufacturers are looking to make up for lost orange juice volume by mixing it with apple, pear or even carrot juice.

“This is a crisis,” said Kees Cools, president of the International Fruit and Vegetable Juice Association: “We’ve never seen anything like it, even during big freezes and big hurricanes.” He said the only cure was to rip out the orange trees and replant, “which the farmer doesn’t like to do”. It can take years for a newly planted orange tree to begin producing fruit, incurring losses that many farmers cannot afford.

Oranges grow in a grove near Winter Garden, Florida, on January 6, 2010. The big freeze in Florida that year damaged millions of the crop. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
While today’s alarm is over our breakfast orange juice, the list of pest and climate challenges threatening global food security is almost too long to fathom. Forbes reported that, last year, wine production fell to its lowest in more than 30 years because of global warming, which also caused Peru’s exports of blueberries and Spain’s exports of olive oil to halve, and potato yields worldwide to fall sharply.

Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in Britain maintains on its website an exotic-sounding list of the world’s top plant pests: the cotton bollworm and cotton aphid, attacking cotton, the two-spotted spider-mite and tobacco whitefly threatening tomatoes, the diamond-backed moth preying on cabbage, the taro caterpillar destroying soy and peanut crops, the red flour beetle threatening wheat, the green peach aphid consuming potatoes and peppers, the fall armyworm eating maize, and the brown planthopper destroying rice crops in Asia.

The list is so long and the battle so eternal that it is sometimes hard to imagine how global warming can make our farmers’ challenges any worse – but it will, for sure, and orange juice is unlikely to be the worst or the last of our worries.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific



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