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High orange juice prices may remain on the table for a while due to illness and extreme weather conditions

MOGI GUACU, Brazil (AP) — Orange juice prices have always been volatile, falling when big harvests caused an oversupply of oranges and rising when frost or a hurricane devastated fruit trees.

But the record high prices the world is currently seeing for OJ may remain on the table for a while, as the diseases and extreme weather conditions plaguing orange groves in some top producing countries are not easily solved problems.

This year’s harvest in Brazil, the world’s biggest exporter of orange juice, is likely to be the worst in 36 years due to floods and drought, according to a forecast by Fundecitrus, an organization of citrus growers in Sao Paulo state.

“The concern is not just that the price of juice will go up. The problem is that we don’t have enough juice,” says Oscar Simonetti, an orange farmer in Mogi Guacu, Brazil.

In the US, Florida’s already reduced orange production fell 62% in the 2022-2023 season after Hurricane Ian further ravaged a struggling crop due to an invasive pest. Drought also negatively affected Spanish orange production last year.

Due to scarce supplies, prices have risen enormously. In the US, a 12-ounce can of frozen orange juice concentrate cost an average of $4.27 in April, up 42% from the same month a year earlier, government figures show.

In the United Kingdom, where supply is at a 50-year low according to the British Fruit Juice Association, the price of fresh orange juice has risen 25% in the past year, according to consumer research firm Nielsen.

These price increases are scaring off inflation-weary consumers. According to Rabobank, a Dutch bank focused on food and agriculture, orange juice consumption has fallen by 15% to 25% in key global markets – including the US and the European Union – over the past year.

Jonna Parker, director of fresh food customer insights at market research firm Circana, says consumers are increasingly getting their morning fruit intake from energy drinks, smoothies and other beverages in addition to orange juice.

“The price is getting high and people are considering other alternatives,” she said.

Global orange juice consumption was already declining before the current price increases due to competition from other drinks and public concerns about the amount of sugar in fruit juices. If this trend continues, it should help balance supply and demand and prevent prices from rising much further, Rabobank said. But it expects limited supply to keep prices high for some time to come.

In some markets, orange juice is disappearing from the shelves altogether.

Late last year, McDonald’s in Australia removed orange juice from its menu and opted for an ‘orange fruit drink’ containing 35% orange juice. The company cited shortages.

Tokyo-based Morinaga Milk Industry Co. expects to stop shipping Sunkist brand orange juice — which uses juice from Brazil — at the end of June due to low juice supplies from Brazil, a company spokeswoman said. In April 2023, Megmilk Snow Brand Co., based in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, halted shipments of 1-liter (about a quart) and 450-milliliter (15.2-ounce) cartons of orange juice, which it sells under an agreement . with Dole. Sales have not yet resumed.

Some companies are considering using alternatives to oranges in their products. Coldpress, a British juice company, introduced a tangerine juice product in February, citing the high price of regular oranges.

But others are remaining tight-lipped about their plans. Several major orange juice companies — including Dole, Tropicana, Florida’s Natural, Uncle Matt’s and Coca-Cola, which makes the Simply and Minute Maid brands — declined to comment or did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.

The roots of today’s supply problems go back decades. In 2005, an invasive insect called the Asian citrus psyllid arrived in Florida and injected bacteria from its saliva into the state’s orange trees. The bacteria slowly kills the tree by destroying its root systems. There is no known cure once a tree is infected.

The impact has been devastating. In 2004, before the disease – called citrus greening – hit Florida, the state produced 200 million boxes of oranges. This year it will produce less than 20 million.

Michael Rogers, professor of entomology and director of the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, said no species of orange tree is completely resistant to greening, but scientists have tried to breed trees that are more tolerant of it.

Citrus greening arrived in Brazil around the same time as Florida, but progress has been slower there because Brazil has much larger orange groves. Insects spread the disease by flying from tree to tree, Rogers said.

Yet the disease spreads. Fundecitrus estimates that 38% of Brazil’s orange trees were citrus green in 2023. Simonetti, the orange farmer, estimates that 20% of his production is affected by greening. Oranges on affected trees do not ripen properly and drop early, affecting the quality of their juice, he said.

Moving production to other locations is not necessarily an option. For example, California grows oranges, and the citrus psyllid does not do well in the state’s climate. But California also doesn’t get the rainfall needed to juice oranges; the oranges are mostly sold for eating, Rogers said.

Another issue affecting the orange crop is extreme weather, which is becoming more common as the world warms due to climate change.

Last year, nine heat waves swept Brazil, resulting in lower production and poorer fruit quality. This year, the effects of El Niño have been particularly dramatic, with a historic drought in the Amazon and devastating floods in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.

“The temperatures are high during the day. At night the temperature drops. The plant cannot tolerate this temperature difference,” says Simonetti.

Brazil’s 2024-2025 harvest is expected to produce 232 million boxes of oranges, down 24% from the previous year.

“We have never seen a harvest like this,” said Vinícius Trombin, the coordinator of Fundecitrus’ harvest estimates survey.

To make up for expected lower yields, some producers are considering blending oranges with tangerines to make juice, Trombin said. But he is skeptical.

“Consumers want orange juice that consists of 100% oranges,” he says.

Parker from Circana isn’t so sure. She thinks blends with other fruits could reduce costs and revive consumer interest in orange juice.

“The idea of ​​multiple flavors is very popular and is a way to stand out,” she says. “You have to keep people involved. Once you lose that interest, it is very difficult to get people back.”