A tiny insect, no bigger than the head of a pin, is threatening to topple the multibillion-dollar citrus industry in the U.S. by infecting millions of acres of orchards with an incurable bacterium called citrus greening disease.
The battle to save the citrus industry is pitting crop producers and a team of agriculture researchers – including agricultural communications professor Taylor K. Ruth of the University of Illinois – against a formidable brown bug, the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads the disease.
Trees infected with the disease, also called Huanglongbing or HB, bear small, misshapen, bitter-tasting green fruit and often die within five years. Currently, there’s no known cure for the disease, which has cost the U.S. citrus industry billions of dollars in crop production and thousands of jobs since it was first identified in Florida in 2005, according to agriculture experts.
Among other solutions, scientists are exploring the possibility of breeding genetically modified trees that are resistant to the disease. But given the controversy over the safety of genetically modified food, scientists need to know whether producers will adopt this technology and whether shoppers will buy and consume GM citrus fruit.
A recent study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides some encouraging answers.
Ruth was on a team of scientists from several universities that surveyed a representative sample of U.S. consumers and conducted focus groups to better understand American consumers’ attitudes about GM food and agriculture.
About half of the 1,050 people who responded to the survey had positive attitudes toward GM science, the researchers found. Nearly 37 percent of the consumers surveyed felt neutral about GM science and 14 percent had negative perceptions of it.
Most of the people who were receptive to GM science were white males who were millennials or younger, the data indicated. They were highly educated – most held a bachelor’s degree or higher – and affluent, with annual incomes of $75,000 or greater.
Women, on the other hand, constituted 64 percent of the group with negative feelings about GM science. Baby boomers and older adults were nearly twice as likely to fall into this group. People in this group also were less educated – about half reported some college but no degree.
The findings were published recently in the journal Science Communication. Co-authors of the paper were Joy N. Rumble, of Ohio State University; Alexa J. Lamm, of the University of Georgia; Traci Irani, of the University of Florida; and Jason D. Ellis, of Kansas State University.
Since social contexts influence public opinion on contentious issues, the survey also assessed respondents’ willingness to share their opinions about GM science, their current perceptions of others’ views on the topic and what they expected public opinion about it to be in the future.
The research team was particularly interested in exploring the potential impact of the “spiral of silence” theory, a hypothesis on public opinion formation that states in part that people who are highly vocal about their opinions in public encourage others with similar views to speak out while effectively silencing those who hold opposite views.
“If people believe the majority of others disagree with them on a topic, they will feel pressure to conform to the majority opinion,” Ruth said. “People aren’t going to be supportive of something if nobody else is supportive of it – no one wants to feel like they are different from the group. That’s the reality of the world that we live in today.”
By contrast, people surveyed who rejected GM science were more likely to express their opinion when they believed others held the opposite view. But people with positive feelings about GM technology were less likely to speak out when they believed others supported it too.
“The way others express their attitude has an indirect effect on what our attitude ends up being,” Ruth said. “We might fall in the actual majority opinion about some of these complex topics, but if other people aren’t vocalizing their opinions, we don’t know that others out there are like-minded.
“Then we start to think ‘Well, maybe I should realign my attitude to what I’m seeing in the media.’ What we see in the media is just reflective of the most dominant voice in the conversation, not necessarily the majority opinion. And I think sometimes people don’t quite understand that.”
Like climate change, GM science is among the complex challenges that some researchers call “wicked issues” – societal problems that are often poorly understood and fraught with conflict, even when the public is provided with relevant science and facts, Ruth, Rumble, Lamm and Ellis wrote in a related study.
That paper was published recently in the Journal of Agricultural Education.
“We must have these conversations about these wicked issues,” Ruth said. “If scientists let other people who don’t have a scientific background fill the void, we’re not going to be a part of that conversation and help people make decisions based upon all of the facts.”
The Latest on: Citrus greening
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The Latest on: Citrus greening
- Fatal Attraction: A Novel Solution to the Problem of Asian Citrus Psyllid on Residential Citruson September 6, 2019 at 8:36 am
... as a novel control system for Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri), which vectors the bacterium that causes citrus greening disease or huanglongbing (HLB). This insect-vector and plant-disease ...
- Hurricane Dorian: Florida grapefruit growers nervously watching stormon September 4, 2019 at 12:12 am
All citrus crops are even more vulnerable now than 15 years ago because of the widespread presence of citrus greening, a fatal bacterial disease that arose in Florida in 2005 and has infected ...
- Taking High-Density Citrus Planting to the Next Levelon September 3, 2019 at 4:26 am
you know it is a sign of the times and changes brought on by citrus greening. That’s what Horace Durrance was told about the 14-acre block of super high-density (SHD) trees planted on his Lost Lake ...
- Can science save citrus? Everything you need to about Omega-3s, and moreon September 2, 2019 at 3:04 pm
Citrus greening photo from USDAgov. ACPs are vectors of a bacterium that causes a disease called huanglongbing (HLB), which is called “citrus greening” because the fruit doesn’t fully turn orange (see ...
- Hurricane Dorian could damage Florida oranges harveston September 2, 2019 at 5:20 am
known as citrus-greening disease. Note that the USDA expects an increase in orange juice production in 2019 by about a third in all of the United States due to increased yield. Florida's share in the ...
- Citrus crop value up as farmland shrinkson August 30, 2019 at 9:17 pm
During the recently completed 2018-2019 season, the industry continued battling deadly citrus-greening disease and factors such as an expansion of development into rural areas and changes in national ...
- Citrus crop value improves but farmland shrinkingon August 29, 2019 at 2:04 pm
During the recently completed 2018-19 season, the industry continued battling deadly citrus-greening disease and factors such as an expansion of development into rural areas and changes in national ...
- Citrus Greening Scourge on the Spread in California and Texason August 28, 2019 at 8:13 am
Containing the deadly citrus greening disease has been an impossible task for growers worldwide. No grove is immune to this point. To that end, the USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ...
- Farmers, researchers try to hold off deadly citrus greening long enough to find cureon August 28, 2019 at 4:19 am
In an orange grove outside Exeter, California, workers climb aluminum ladders to pick fruit with expert speed. California produces 80 percent of the nation's fresh oranges, tangerines and lemons ...
- Farmers, researchers try to hold off deadly citrus greeningon August 27, 2019 at 6:08 pm
In an orange grove outside Exeter, California, workers climb aluminum ladders to pick fruit with expert speed. California produces 80 percent of the nation’s fresh oranges, tangerines and lemons, most ...
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