orange
Grygory Weil

It’s rare that us lowly eaters experience any personal gain from genetically modified food. But over the weekend The New York Times published a long piece by Amy Harmon that made the benefits of genetically modified oranges explicit.

That benefit? Having any oranges at all. An insect-spread disease, which turns oranges green and sour, is spreading throughout the world. Harmon quotes one scientist as saying:

People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice.

That may be a bit of an overstatement: Orange groves are succumbing fast, but growers are fighting back.

Growers in Florida did not like to talk about it, but the industry’s tripling of pesticide applications to kill the bacteria-carrying psyllid was, while within legal limits, becoming expensive and worrisome. One widely used pesticide had stopped working as the psyllid evolved resistance, and Florida’s citrus growers’ association was petitioning one company to lift the twice-a-season restrictions on spraying young trees — increasingly its only hope for an uninfected harvest.

Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, is trying a different strategy: genetically modifying orange trees to resist the disease. It looks like he has succeeded. But Kress is haunted by the possibility that no one will want to drink his genetically engineered OJ.

“Will they believe us?” he asked himself for the first time. “Will they believe we’re doing this to eliminate chemicals and we’re making sure it’s safe? Or will they look at us and say, ‘That’s what they all say?’”

At least one reader did believe it. A New York commenter with the handle Ancient Astronaut wrote:

Genetically modified foods concern me, but I have to say that I’d prefer tested GM food over food soaked in pesticides any given day of my life. Genes, after all come from nature; chemicals don’t.

Aside from the fact that chemicals do, in fact, come from nature — everything in nature is made of chemicals! — this seems an apposite example: When people are faced with a problem, and genetic modification is one of several choices for dealing with that problem, we might just pick it. It’s a lot tougher to swallow when we have no choice, and the only benefit we see is to the bottom line of agribusiness.