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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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An investment to save Florida citrus

The 2014 Farm Bill may be marred by subsidies and handouts, but it does offer an example of appropriate federal spending.

The legislation includes $125 million over the next five years for research on citrus greening, which threatens Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also allocating another $6.5 million to anti-greening efforts.

Although Florida produces 60 percent of the nation’s orange crop, the disease could easily move on to groves in Texas and California.

The research dollars are desperately needed. Citrus greening is estimated to infect as many as 70 percent of the state’s trees, and citrus production is at a 30-year low. A 2012 study found the lower production caused by greening already had cost the state’s economy close to $4 billion and 7,000 jobs. It also causes higher orange juice prices.

Greening could very well do what devastating freezes, canker disease, Mediterranean fruit flies, hurricanes and development have not been able to do: destroy the citrus industry.

As state Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam says, “we can’t afford to lose” Florida’s “signature crop,” which supports 75,000 jobs.

The federal allocation does not represent a subsidy. Rather, it allows the kind of comprehensive research needed to sustain the nation’s agriculture industry.

Citrus greening is a bacterial disease primarily spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny exotic insect that carries the disease as it feeds on citrus tree leaves. Seeds and grafting from an infected tree can also spread the disease.

Although the greening does not immediately kill the tree, infected trees produce misshapen and bitter fruit and eventually stop producing.

Scientists have been struggling to find chemicals, antibiotics or natural predators, including wasps that prey on psyllids, that would halt the disease’s spread.

Recently, scientists at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences announced they had found a chemical that kills the greening bacteria.

According to Associated Press reports, the chemical has been used to treat gout in humans, though is not approved in the United States because of fears of liver damage. Officials found when they sprayed it on an infected tree, it halted the bacteria in 80 percent of the tree’s shoots.

But it has only been tested in the lab, and far more testing is needed to determine whether it can be safely used commercially. It could prove to be the magic bullet — or a dead end.

The federal funding, we hope, can expedite these studies and also fund research into other defenses against this financial scourge.

Washington too often wastes tax dollars subsidizing private ventures and protecting select interests from competition. But supporting research that can preserve jobs, boost industry and protect resources is responsible spending.

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