Learn more about the orange shortage and what to expect at your grocery store.
February is typically the best time of year for delectable citrus. Whether you love the zip of a lime or the heft of a grapefruit, now is ordinarily when you’d stock up. Oranges are particularly popular this time of year, for everything from sweet spritz cookies to savory glazed pork loin.
Unfortunately, when you head to the grocery store to stock up on your favorite fruit, you may notice prices rising. Much like this year’s egg shortage, oranges may soon be in limited supply, thanks to a pesky bacterial disease and one particular insect species. Here’s everything you need to know about the potential “orange-flation.”
Why Is There an Orange Shortage?
In brief, the orange shortage is caused by a disease known as Huanglongbing, HLB, or “citrus greening.” Huanglongbing is fatal and incurable to citrus trees—including oranges, lemons, and limes—and has actually been lurking around the United States for some time.
In 2016, Florida provided 75 percent of America’s favorite citrus. However, in the past decade or so, the state’s orange yield has been halved by Huanglongbing, with experts predicting the state’s 2022/2023 crop to be the lowest in 75 years.
Because of the decrease in Florida’s orange production, California has since stepped up as the top orange grower in the U.S. In 2019 to 2020, California grew 62 percent of America’s oranges, according to Axios. The state earns approximately $7 billion dollars from the commercial production of citrus and employs approximately 22,000 Californians in the citrus industry.
Unfortunately, one insect, called Diaphorina citri Kuwayama, or the Asian citrus psyllid, has now carried the deadly disease all the way from Florida to California, once again threatening the country’s citrus supply. This insect is so effective at spreading the disease that it has also devastated crops in Texas, China, and Brazil.
Why Are Orange Prices Going Up?
To put it simply, the supply is shrinking. While the dying orange trees can still technically produce fruit, that fruit becomes green with an off-putting taste. The green oranges are harmless to humans and animals, but they are bitter enough to be virtually inedible, and thus, unsellable.
With the country’s largest producer of oranges at real risk of losing its stock, the supply is shrinking dramatically while demand remains the same (or even increases). As such, orange prices are rising across the country and may continue to do so over the next few years if the disease cannot be managed.
What Are Experts Doing to Fight Huanglongbing?
The bad news here is that Huanglongbing is incurable and experts “haven’t found that silver bullet to stop it yet,” in the words of Tamara Wood, Communications Consultant for Florida Citrus Mutual.
The good news is that the disease is currently relegated to backyard growers, and experts at the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Division of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CPDPD) are working incredibly hard to stop its spread to commercial farms.
Currently, CPDPD employees are patrolling orchards to find and remove any infected trees. The director of the CPDPD, Victoria Hornbaker, then meticulously updates a map and list of the dangerous crops to track and stop the disease’s spread. She is hopeful that this “boots on the ground” approach can save the state’s oranges.
Additionally, Hornbaker says, “[t]here is a lot of work going into determining [citrus] varieties that are resistant or tolerant to the bacteria.” For example, Hailing Jin, Professor and Plant Molecular Geneticist at UC Riverside, has studied the Australian finger lime, which seems immune to the disease. In her research, she has successfully “isolated a peptide,” which experts hope could one day cure Huanglongbing if administered to infected trees as a sort of vaccine.
What Can I Do About the Orange Shortage?
As with buying eggs, please be mindful about limiting your purchase of this coveted ingredient. Stockpiling only increases demand and panic, leading to an even more volatile market (remember the TP crisis of 2020?). Try to shop for local, seasonal fruit as regularly as possible. Yes, February is traditionally a gorgeous season for citrus, but there are plenty of other bountiful late winter fruits. To mix it up, try apples, kiwis, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, or rhubarb.