It’s going to be another terrible orange harvest this winter in Florida. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast today that growers in the state will collect just 70 million boxes of the fruit in the coming months, down from 81.6 million in the previous harvest -- and down from the all-time peak of 244 million boxes in 1998.
As noted in the chart, boxes of oranges weigh different amounts in different states -- meaning that no, the numbers aren’t perfectly comparable. But this is how the Agriculture Department has been reporting orange production since the early 1900s, so I figure that’s how I should report it, too. And yes, they also grow oranges in Texas, but not enough to really see on this chart.
The main cause of Florida’s big orange-production decline is huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease. As you might guess, huanglongbing has its roots in China, where it was first reported in 1919 (the name means “yellow dragon disease”). It was detected in Florida in 2005, and has been decimating citrus groves ever since. It shows up first as a yellowish discoloration of the leaves, then turns the fruit lopsided and bitter and finally kills the tree. There is no cure once a tree is infected, but huanglongbing is caused by a bacteria spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, so growers have had some success in controlling the disease's spread by killing off psyllids with pesticides. And while the disease is probably not a death sentence for the Florida citrus industry -- China is still the world’s No. 2 orange producer, after all -- it may leave it permanently smaller.
Then again, the Florida citrus industry was probably headed for a big decline in any case. That’s because its main product is orange juice (95 percent of Florida oranges are turned into juice), and orange juice has fallen out of favor as American consumers have come to perceive it less as a source of vitamin C than a source of sugar. The USDA’s measure of “orange juice availability per capita,” a proxy for consumption, has fallen from a peak of 6.27 gallons in 1997-98 to 2.74 gallons in 2015-2016. As a result, orange juice prices have held steady despite the production collapse in Florida and a similar huanglongbing-induced decline in Brazil, the world’s top producer of oranges and of orange juice....MORE