The Orange & The Pest

It’s called the Asian Citrus Psyllid. It’s about 3 to 4 millimeters long with a long brown spotted body. A bit of an ugly little bug, and it is currently playing havoc on our citrus trees.

asian citrus psyllid

The story of this little ugly bug starts in southern China in 1919. This was the first year in recorded history when humans, the Asian Citrus Psyllid or ACP for short, and our citrus trees all met. Now, the one thing to note is that this wasn’t and isn’t a very symbiotic relationship. Rather, you could compare it to our relationship with the common flu. Always against us, always adapting, always moving, always one step ahead. The ACP does a few things to our citrus trees, but the most damaging is that it transmits bacteria which in turn creates a disease in the trees. Some folks call it “citrus greening” others call it huanglongbing. First, the leaves on the trees turn yellowish with a blotchy, spotted pattern. Then the fruit that is produced is grown small, lopsided, retains a partially green colour, and contains undeveloped seeds. The juice from the infected fruit then becomes bitter. Finally, in a few years the trees just simply die.

14547196547_56865f4288_mPhoto Credit: agrilifetoday via Compfight cc

Over time the ACP has moved from Southern China, to the Philippines, Thailand and then in 1998 it popped up in Florida, US of A. Now, today, we are going to primarily focus on Oranges, and it can be argued that the two most important regions in terms of the production of Oranges is the United States and Brazil. The United States accounts for 14% of the world’s production of oranges and Brazil accounts for 32%, and both areas are currently under threat by the Asian Citrus Psyllid. To better comprehend the scope of the situation. The Florida citrus industry, alone, is currently worth $10 billion and employs around 76,000 people, and accounts for pretty much the entire U.S orange juice production.  Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that, in 2015 alone, Florida would experience a 20% decline in production. Florida is now entering a time where it will produce only half of what it was producing just a few short years ago. The end of the citrus industry in this state is in site.

There is no cure for citrus greening, at least, not yet.  Farmers attempt to combat it with more fertilizers and pesticides, which certainly doesn’t help the environment and increases the cost of production exponentially. They have also started placing a type of aluminum sheeting along the ground at the base of the trees. The sheeting acts as a reflector which increases the temperature. The increased heat has led to improved growth and fewer sightings of the ACP. The University of Florida has also announced that it has developed a genetically modified orange tree that appears to be resistant to citrus greening. If or when this tree would be introduced is a long way off and maybe too late to even potentially save these industries.

Since the arrival of the Asian Citrus Psyllid in Florida in 1998 it have now spread throughout the United States and in 2008 was first identified in California. There are no longer many places in the world, if any, that have not been affected by the ACP. And, unless a cure is found or other breeds are developed we might be breezing by more signs in our supermarkets. Perhaps, next time they will read. “Our apologies. Due to the ugly bug called ACP there are no oranges for you today.”

Quinoa: A Lost Seed

Quinoa. Or, as my 2009 past self would have pronounced it Qi-no-a is perhaps the quintessential healthy food. Praised and exalted by patchouli scented foodies for the past couple of decades, quinoa, has all the qualities the health food scene desires. Quinoa has a great story. A recently discovered magic seed, highly adaptable to adverse soil and weather conditions, harvested and cleaned by exotic peasants living on the cliffs of the high Andes. At one time a subsistence crop, now, due to its growing popularity with foreigners, the exportation of this crop has, in a real way, increased the standard of living for these farmers.  A seed worthy of the worn out, thrown about, overly marketed term “superfood.” The United Nations itself classified quinoa as a “super crop” for its high protein content. It contains all nine essential amino acids, including the amino acid lysine, which is essential for tissue growth and repair, and quinoa is a source of manganese, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorous. It is a great story.

Yet, how the story is told, what is added and what is left out is dependent on the story teller. And Quinoa is one example of many whose story has been told through the gaze of the explorer and the conqueror. At the core it is a story not of a seed that was found, but a seed that was lost.

According to some academics, Quinoa can be considered one of the oldest crops in the Andean Region. A region that spans the countries of Equador, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Chili, and Argentina. Quinoa has been cultivated over the past 5000 years with great empires, the Incas and the Tiahuanacu, playing a role in its domestication and conservation. These peoples and other lesser known groups, the Wari, Mochica, Chimu and Nazca cultures had a special interest in the domestication of plant species to the extent that by the 16th Century the Andes had more domesticated species than Asia, Africa, and perhaps even in Europe although for obvious reasons that comparison was never made by 19th Century American Botanist, O.F Cook. From the beginning of the 15th Century an exchange of seeds became widespread within the Inca Empire. It was through this exchange, that Andean Peasants were able to improve biological diversity as a strategy to cope with a risky climate common with mountainous agriculture. The Andean Peasants also worked within a highly technical agricultural system called Aynokas. Where community collaboration, crop rotation, and the temporary conversion of cultivated land to fallow land allowed the people to grow food while also maintaining the nutritional health of their soil.

In the 16th Century, however, the Spanish arrived and along with their guns and diseases came their food which disrupted the Andean agriculture. Over time, quinoa, which the Incas’ had considered sacred and was referred to as the “mother grain” became marginalized and lost its influence with the population writ large. Quinoa returned back to its beginnings. The Andean farmers continued to grow it, but only for their own sustenance. For those who lived in more urban centers in the Andean countries it all but didn’t exist.Quinoa and other native crops were replaced with barley, wheat, oats, beans, and peas. These new crops that were introduced by the Spanish did well at high altitudes and compared to quinoa they were easy to process. Quinoa seeds are naturally covered with an unpalatable coating called Saponin which needs to be removed prior to consuming. It is a labour intensive process. Economically it made sense to make the switch. Food is food, right? So, if it was easier to produce and cheaper to trade the Spanish imports what if anything could be lost. Well, actually quite a lot.  

As I’ve said before, although I know there are many who despise the term, quinoa is kind of deserving of the “superfood” status. First off, it’s ridiculously versatile. You can eat the seed and the leaves as is, or turn the seeds into flour. There are numerous recipes and about 100 different ways that you can consume the Quinoa plant. Including making it into tamales, sauce, leaf salad, pickled quinoa ears, soups, casseroles, stews, pastries, sweets and desserts, soft and fermented, hot and cold, beverages, and bread and biscuits. What cannot be consumed by humans can be used to feed cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and poultry. On top of this, it is indeed really nutritious. That is not just yuppie folklore. The United Nations declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa.” Which, granted, could have been a reaction to some great lobbying efforts by shareholders of quinoa, but in an effort to not sound overly pessimistic it could also have been generally warranted. Quinoa, not only contains all essential amino acids, trace elements, and is gluten free, it is the only plant known today that does. There is no substitute. And if you are like me and a blank look comes across your face when you hear “essential amino acid.”  They are basically elements that are required for normal health and growth, but are either not manufactured or not manufactured in sufficient quantities by our own bodies. If you take this information and add it to the knowledge that quinoa contains a high protein content and can grow in adverse climatic conditions, it is a plant that is not only good for us, but could play an important role in the future as our population adapts to a warming, drying climate with less resources.

Currently, quinoa cultivation is slowly spreading to pockets around the world. Farmers in North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia are experimenting with this seed which is closely related to beets and spinach. This increase in cultivation will hopefully lower the price of quinoa which is currently too expensive for the average individual to consume. The hope, though, is that any change in the marketplace will be considered with care, so that it won’t have a negative impact on the Andean quinoa farmers. Fundamentally, quinoa has become the plant it is today because of the Andean’s meticulous efforts to maintain a diverse genetic pool. If Quinoa is to play a role in our future food stability, it cannot go the way of corn and soy where the number of varieties planted are few and far between.

As quinoa continues along its trajectory slowly finding a place in our food and diet we should remind ourselves to treat it with reverence. The effort it takes to produce and what it provides should not go unnoticed or be unknown. And it’s story should be told void of any colonialist indulgences. We do not need to exoticize the farmers or claim it as something we found. It’s attributes were known thousand of years prior to our meddling by great empires that were not our own. It is because of our colonialist actions that quinoa is only now taking to seed in different places and different soils. As Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia stated, “For years [quinoa] was looked down on just like the indigenous movement. To remember that past is to remember discrimination against quinoa and now after so many years it is reclaiming its rightful recognition as the most important food for life.”