Brazil, the US, and the European Union, combined, drive most of the world’s supply and demand of orange juice. But the Florida citrus industry has been in crisis for the past decade. Some 90% of the state’s orange and grapefruit trees have been infected by the incurable citrus greening disease, and consumer tastes have shifted away from the orange juice the state is so famous for.
That has taken a toll on Florida’s industry economics: Higher input costs, such as for agricultural chemicals, have forced small growers out of the market. Many trees have been left neglected and unharvested. The state’s citrus industry, which once employed 90,000 people two decades ago, now employs 50,000.
Until 2013, the US produced enough orange juice to satisfy 85% of its domestic demand, on average, supplementing with imports from Brazil, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Last year, it produced just 32%, as Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on Florida’s crop. Worldwide, the US currently has a 15% market share in production of orange juice, down from 30% in 2005.
Florida’s woes have benefited competing producers, especially Brazil, which produces about 60% of the world’s orange juice, almost all of it for export. Production, while relatively small, has picked up in Mexico, too, on the back of US declines. And orange juice output in China has more than tripled over the past decade.
Now, this year, for the first time since 2012, Florida is expected to see a rebound in production. The state’s key Polk County saw great spring and summer weather in 2018. Good rainfall and a lack of extreme conditions benefited this year’s crop. Farmers currently finishing up their harvest are set to see a 61% year-over-year increase in output. While a rebound from last year’s hurricane-damaged crop of 2017/18 isn’t a surprise, production also is slated to top the previous year’s output by 5%. The expected improvement this year also provides some hope that the citrus greening disease crisis has at least stabilized.
Citrus greening disease was first recorded in Florida in 2005. Since then it has decimated the state’s citrus groves. The number of orange grove acres bearing fruit has dropped by a third since 2005. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) in 2016 estimated that 80% of the state’s trees had been infected. Estimates since then have hit 90%.
Citrus greening, which has had far less impact in Brazil than in Florida, is a bacterial disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny, sap-sucking insect that has spread from its native Asia. Citrus greening, also known as HLB, or huanglongbing (yellow dragon disease), attacks the trees’ vascular and root systems, limiting the plant’s ability to take up nutrients and restricting the flow of sugars and minerals. Fruit and juice yields are significantly lower. Fruits are small, bitter tasting, and drop prematurely, when they are still partly green. Yellow-veined leaves, characteristic of infection, can take months to show up, allowing the infection to set in and spread.
Citrus growers have limited options to deal with citrus greening disease, which has no cure. Best practices call for removal and replacement of infected trees at the first sign of infection. Plant scientists have been working to develop new stock that resists infection, but such efforts so far have had limited success.
At present, disease prevention is best accomplished through aggressive chemical control of the Asian citrus psyllid and increased fertilization to help trees stave off infection. As a result, growers’ cost of production has tripled over the past decade to about $2,100 per acre, according to an estimate by Hunt Brothers Cooperative. Another strategy to combat the disease has been to apply antibiotics to combat the disease, including in areas such as California where the infection is less entrenched. The practice, which the US Environmental Protection Agency recently granted permission to expand, is controversial because of concerns of growing antibiotic resistance in humans.
The European Union is the world’s largest consumer and importer of orange juice. Consumption nearly tripled from the mid-1980s to 2010. But now, people around the world are drinking less orange juice than they once did. Global consumption has declined by more than 30% since peaking at 2.5 million tons in the 2003/04 marketing year, according to USDA figures. In the US and EU, consumption is down 31% and 24%, respectively, in the decade between 2007/08 and 2017/18.
The problem: Orange juice has become implicated, along with many other once popular foods, in public health concerns about excess sugar consumption, according to economist Allen Morris, formerly at the University of Florida. Studies have linked high fruit juice consumption with obesity, and many alternative, lower-calorie, beverages have been added to grocery store shelves. Meanwhile, the orange juice industry has not done enough to compete, including running insufficient marketing programs, he said. Price has also been a factor in consumption declines, with wholesale orange juice prices at about twice the levels they were in 2000.
There are reasons for optimism on the consumption front. While orange juice consumption has been falling in established markets, it’s growing in Brazil and Asia. Less than 3% of Brazil’s orange juice production is consumed within the country, but domestic demand has grown 18% in the past decade. In China, demand is up 53% over that period. In Europe, the European Fruit Juice Association is partnering with Brazil’s citrus exporter trade group to launch a marketing campaign to promote the nutritional benefits of 100% juice and “reposition its image.” Potential retail price reductions in the US with continued improvements in Florida orange production should also help stem the decline in American consumption. The USDA is projecting a 1.5% increase in world orange juice consumption this year.
After 15 years of nearly relentless decline in Florida orange production, the state is set to see the largest year-over-year increase in orange production since the Great Depression. It’s an important and positive sign for an industry that’s been ravaged by citrus plant disease, and it highlights the tenaciousness of Florida’s farmers in caring for their trees. At the same time, an expected upward tick in orange juice demand in the biggest established markets—the US and EU—is good news after years of steady declines in consumption. And with orange juice consumption rising in relatively new markets, including China and Brazil, there appears to be plenty of room for growth in demand around the world for a product whose consumption has been tied almost exclusively to two markets for decades.