Southern Gardens Citrus, a large Florida citrus growing and processing operation, is growing genetically modified fruit that’s resistant to the citrus greening disease.

Since one of its groves was where citrus greening, also known as HLB and huanglongbing, was first discovered, the Clewiston, Fla.-based operation is researching ways to grow fruit free of the disease that has devastated the state’s groves.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency granted an experimental use permit to grow varieties of oranges, grapefruit and lemons with a spinach defensin gene that shows resistance, said Ricke Kress, president.

Defensins are destructive peptides or groups of amino acids that kill bacteria, fungi and viruses and Kress said greenhouse and field results of the patented technology show resistance to the disease. 

Kress, who is also vice president of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc., in Lake Alfred, Fla., said Southern Gardens is moving the process from field trials and regulatory to production and to consumer acceptance.

Regulations limit field trials to less than 10 acres but with spring’s favorable weather, Southern Gardens plans to increase noncommercial production, depending on the number of trees that can be generated from the permit’s variables, he said.

Approval of an EPA temporary tolerance application means the fruit poses no safety issues and is considered safe for consumption.

Acknowledging the controversy over GMOs, Kress said the company is collecting data to show how the biotech organism is no different from non-biotechnical fruit.

The fruit shows no taste or other differences and the company plans to make the technology, once commercialized, available to other growers.

“We are working through every aspect that we feel we need to show this technology is viable, so it won’t be a problem,” Kress said. “The disease affects the entire industry and as we’re working forward to finding a potential solution, it will apply to the whole industry, whether juice, fresh fruit and byproducts.

“This disease has forced this industry to become better growers. We have had to evaluate what we did in the past and what we have to do in the future and by and large, we are doing better at growing citrus.”

A division of U.S. Sugar Corp., Southern Gardens grows on 14,500 acres for processing.