Published: Sep 23, 2013 5:51 PM EDT
Updated: Sep 23, 2013 6:47 PM EDT

CLEWISTON, Fla. - Growers across Florida are worried about a disease ravaging the fields: citrus greening. It's killing citrus trees by the thousands. The disease leaves the fruit misshappen, green and sour and it's everywhere the orange is found.

"There's no known cure for the disease," explained Ricke Kress, President of Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar Corporation.

Kress thinks genetically modified orange trees will save the orange juice industry.

"If we don't get a cure for it, conceivably, it could wipe it out," said Kress. But he thinks the industry will find a solution.

Citrus greening was first found in Florida groves, in Southern Gardens' groves, in 2005, shortly after Kress came to the company. Since then, it's destroyed more than a quarter of the company's trees.

Greening is caused by a bacteria carried tree to tree by an insect called the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The bacteria plugs up the tree's nutrient delivery system.

"We've lost in excess of 25 percent of our trees, over 700,000 trees since we found this disease," Kress said.

As the groves suffer, so too could Southern Gardens' processing plant. The plant produces up to 600,000 gallons of juice a day, enough to fill an olympic-sized swimming pool.

"Our processing operation out here in a given year can run anywhere between 12 and 15 percent of the oranges into juice and concentrate in the state of Florida. It's an asset that can't do anything else," explained Kress. "If we don't have oranges to run, it will become idle."

If the juice dries up, so do the jobs.

Florida's billion dollar orange juice industry is number two in the world behind the entire country of Brazil. So Southern Gardens Citrus decided to fight, turning to researchers at universities to find a solution, a genetic solution.

They tried mixing in a pig gene, a synthetic gene, and even a gene from a virus, with the orange tree. But so far, the most promising solution to fight off greening, is a gene from the spinach plant.

"We all grew up on spinach," said Kress.

"Citrus greening is definitely a major threat to this industry nationwide, not just Florida," explained Doctor Calvin Arnold, lab director of the USDA's Horticultural Research Lab in Fort Pierce.

Dr. Arnold is very aware of the research Kress and his team at Southern Gardens Citrus is doing with the spinach gene and says, ""those [spinach] genes have a high probability of being very safe."

He also notes that one of the government's research project that looks very promising, is one that uses a gene from a relative of the citrus plant-- the thorny poncirus trifoliata. He believes that ultimately science is going to save the orange industry.

"I'm not necessarily just saying our lab but I think science in general is going to provide the technology that's going to help this industry survive," said Arnold.

Ricke Kress tells us that so far, the trees with the spinach gene are still healthy, but it'll be at least five to six years before orange juice could be produced from these trees.

"We're trying to figure out how to speed up mother nature. That's our biggest challenge," he said.

But he realizes, he also has to convince his skeptics that a genetically modified orange, is safe.

"If we don't communicate and explain and work through the process of what we're doing with the consumer, it won't matter," he said.

Cody Vidussi works at Chef Brooke's Natural Cafe in Fort Myers. Just like his customers, Cody cares about where his food comes from.

"Personally, it's kind of a big deal to me, what I'm putting in my body," Cody said.

According to a New York Times poll earlier this year, nearly half of those surveyed said they wouldn't eat genetically modified organisms, or GMO's.

"I think a lot of people are suspicious of the whole GMO process," explained Cody.

But Dr. Arnold says we have to find another solution to stopping greening. Right now, chemicals and nutrients are being used to keep the trees with greening, alive longer.

"We cannot keep applying the amount of pesticides we are applying," he said. "It's just too expensive, insects can develop a resistance to the pesticides and growers don't want to do that. that's the last thing the growers want to do. Nobody wants that... so if we can reduce the use of pesticides, then let's do it. That is far better for society."

And for Ricke Kress, one of his priorities, besides finding a solution to greening, is finding a way to convince consumers that modifying the orange, may be the only way to save it.

Genetic modification is not the only solution companies like Southern Gardens Citrus, other growers, and the government is looking at, but it is one that the industry is paying close attention to. Right now trees with a gene from spinach are undergoing a number of tests to see if it is safe for the environment and eventually, for us to eat.