RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There was a time when children looked forward to getting an orange in their Christmas stockings - one orange, that's all - a treat many enjoyed just once a year. That changed with the rise of the citrus industry. Since the middle of the 20th century, children could expect to start every day with a glass of orange juice.

Now the rarity that became a commodity is threatened by a major epidemic. Valerie Alker of member station WGCU has this report.

VALERIE ALKER: Jim Snively strolls through a row of orange trees near the town of LaBelle, a citrus industry stronghold in southwest Florida. The sun is shining. The orange-laden trees look lovely. But Snively is worried.

Mr. SNIVELY: The tree behind you, you see the pink paint that's on that tree, that's not a good thing. That's showing you that tree is infected with greening.

ALKER: Up and down these rows, inspectors have spray-painted trees with swatches of pink paint, signaling they'll soon be cut down. Snively heads grove operations for Southern Gardens Citrus, one of the nation's largest fresh orange juice producers.

His company has removed a half a million trees over the last few years to try to stop the spread of citrus greening. Still, company president Rick Kress says they're not giving up.

Mr. RICK KRESS (President, Southern Gardens Citrus): When we found out we had the disease in 2005, we made the decision to be as proactive as we could to learn about the disease, deal with the disease and ultimately find a solution to it.

ALKER: Florida's citrus industry has experience battling difficult crop diseases. Canker began to plague the state in the mid-1990s. That disease scars the fruit and makes it fall off early. But greening's worse. A tiny, flying insect spreads the greening bacteria, which actually kills the tree. Removing infected trees and using insecticide on the bugs haven't slowed greening's march across the state.

But researchers are optimistic.

Professor DEAN GABRIEL (Plant Pathology, University of Florida): We have added a gene to citrus. So this is a genetically modified citrus tree.

ALKER: Dean Gabriel is a plant pathology professor at the University of Florida and founder of Integrated Plant Genetics. He says genetically modified trees are the only way to save the Florida's $9 billion citrus industry. He's says it's proves successful elsewhere.

Prof. GABRIEL: I think it was about 10 years ago when there was a virus that attacked the Hawaiian papaya, was wiping them all out, and because they added a gene to the papaya tree to enable it to resist this disease, then they saved the entire industry.

ALKER: Researchers have planted about a dozen genetically modified trees in field trials at Southern Gardens. Experts want to know the trees remain disease-free and that the quality of the fruit they produce will be acceptable to consumers. Ron Hamel heads up the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, whose 100 members are immersed in a greening battle.

Mr. RON HAMEL (Gulf Citrus Growers Association): Right now, if we could find plant materials or citrus trees that would be resistant to these pests and diseases, I think in the long run, it would pay off for both the industry and consumers because it will enable us to continue to provide good quality orange juice from Florida.

ALKER: Field tests are expected to take two years. If all goes well, growers could begin replacing diseased trees with genetically modified varieties within six years.

For NPR News, I'm Valerie Alker in Fort Myers, Florida.

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