Ag at Large: ‘In the red’ appeals to citrus growers

Blood oranges are a rising trend in California’s citrus industry. COURTESY OF PIXABAY

Researchers and sales-oriented industry leaders are steering California’s citrus industry toward a blood red future, and many growers are anxious to get in step.

Consumers who have sampled “blood oranges” can understand why the experts are rushing to incorporate the sweetness, brightness and increased health benefits of these colorful favorites as part of the California citrus panorama.

Along with Cara Cara orange varieties, which can move right on past red to purple, California’s citrus industry is contemplating and working toward a colorful future. In addition, the two cultivars may lead the way to a future with more green (as in money) because of their extended qualities, sweetness and striking appearances.

But the investment in developing wider consumer choices for the “bright ones” is significant, applying molecular biology as part of the extended and precise genetic engineering required. An article in the current issue of the industry-favored Citrograph Magazine is written by three researchers at the Crop Improvement and Genetics Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Albany, California – Kasturi Dasgupta, Min Shao and James Thornton.

The researchers have not let the color issue blind them. They have reported previously and in the current article that the cultivars of both blood orange and Cara Cara fruit require significantly lower temperatures during fruit maturation to develop the appearance and health features they proclaim.

For hundreds of the state’s citrus growers who spend unconscionable time and money each year to protect their Navel orange crops from frost damage, the news about an affinity for lower temperatures is bracing – if not shocking.

With full awareness and oversight by the Citrus Research Board in Visalia, the researchers have prepared single copy transgenic citrus lines for field trials. These express fruit specific promoter-driving MybA. Production of transgenic citrus such as Mexican Lime and sweet orange is ongoing.

A glossary included with the researchers’ report explains that a transgene is one that has been transferred from the genome of one species into that of another species, accomplished in this project by artificial means.

Citrus industry leaders are expected to follow the progress of this research intently as it progresses from the Albany facility to the field trial stage. Part of the process includes various permits and the protection of intellectual property rights and commercialization.

While some of the report in Citrograph and all of the research conducted is involved and technical, the target of wide consumer appeal is clear. Increasing the volume of tasty red-hued citrus products available at fresh fruit outlets can be a major gain for the citrus industry, and hopefully, a money maker for growers who can produce the fruit.

This project is another example of the importance and pertinence of agricultural research conducted with the interests of both consumers and producers foremost. While the project is complex, and its procedures and results are esoteric it is nonetheless an essential ingredient in one of California’s dynamic agricultural industry.

Central California residents in particular are integrated with the citrus industry, whether they choose to be or not. The status of the industry is an important issue for Central California communities.

While current research involves deepening the color of citrus fruit, it is only part of a much larger and more comprehensive research agenda, in this case, for the citrus industry. Understanding its depth, complexity and contribution helps to explain the day-to-day and background progress of all of the state’s dynamic crops and industries.

This project leading to a deeper hue for citrus fruit underscores why and how agriculture and farming in California is so colorful. Enjoy it.