Florida citrus industry being devastated by unstoppable bacterial disease

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 by: Lance Johnson
Tags: citrus industry, greening disease, Florida

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(NaturalNews) A tiny insect called the Asian psyllid is feasting on Florida's citrus trees and spreading bacteria that is leeching nutrients from the trees. The bacterial disease, called Huanglongbing, does not affect humans but does kill off citrus trees. The disease is commonly referred to as citrus greening, which is witnessed when unripe fruit turns bitter and falls from the tree. The disease is relatively new to Florida, first detected in 2005. The citrus greening disease has continued to spread each year since 2005 and in 2012 has been noticed deadlier than ever, devastating orange production to 10 percent losses from initial estimates. Experts are increasingly concerned, since the USDA has downgrading its crop estimates five months in a row now.

Growers reporting 30 to 40 percent losses of oranges picked

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, told The New York Times. "If we don't find a cure, it will eliminate the citrus industry." Florida is the world's second largest orange juice producer with an over $9 billion yearly economy.

Right now, all 32 citrus growing counties are being affected by the disease. These counties have roughed hurricanes, hard freezes, and canker disease, but have not faced a tragedy as great as citrus greening. Some growers are reporting losses between 30 to 40 percent of what they pick each year.

Lifelong citrus grower, Vic Story, owner of 2,000 acres of groves in Central Florida warns, "We have got a real big problem." Story, who manages a total of 5,000 acres of orange trees, sees the various effects the bacteria are having. "It's definitely the biggest threat in my lifetime, and I'm 68. This is a tree killer."

Some orange tree growers selling their farms

As trees become infected, they must be removed to protect neighboring trees from contracting the disease. As trees come down, more middle-sized farmers are unable to afford the losses, abandoning their farms altogether. Many are postponing new growth or just selling their land outright.

Some farmers are finding ways to prevent the disease by eliminating the psyllid altogether. One method of extermination is to introduce lady beetles and lacewings to the area. These bugs find psyllids to be a tasty meal, devouring them without further harming the citrus tree.

The psyllid was first discovered in Brazil. Brazil farmers fought greening epidemic by quickly removing infected trees and planting multiple acres of new growth. Since the orange trees take five years to mature, Brazil may now be seeing recovery. Scientists believe the insect came to Florida through Miami ports about a decade ago. Florida may not have the same luxury Brazil has, with widely available rural growing areas to expand to.

Citrus greening disease costing thousands of jobs and billion-dollar losses

Agriculture analysts from the University of Florida have outlined the steady decline in Florida's citrus production in the past 15 years. In their 2012 report, the researchers detailed 8,000 jobs that have been lost in Florida alone including $4.5 billion in losses in just seven years. Other states, including Texas and Florida, are recognizing the spreading disease and are joining in on efforts to raise money for a cure.

Large, concerted efforts raising money to find an answer

Not all are giving up the fight. The USDA, legislatures, the growers themselves, and even Coca-Cola have stepped in to find a cure for the greening disease.

The USDA has spent millions in the past five years, trying to stay on top of the problem. A Florida legislature recently approved $8 million for greening research.

Coca-Cola has volunteered $2 billion to invest in 25,000 acres of new orange tree groves. Growers are banding together as well, raising money through a self imposed tax. They've raised $60 million over six years to create a research foundation.

Sixty-eight-year-old, lifelong orange tree grower, Vic Story believes, "We think we can do it; we know we can do it."

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