TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Thursday, Nov 26, 2015

Tampa Tribune editorial: A uniquely Florida industry in jeopardy

TBO.com Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:01 PM

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam is usually upbeat about the state's prospects, but even he can find no words of encouragement for the citrus industry.

"We are losing the fight against citrus greening disease," he says. "It's in every county in Florida. It causes massive fruit drop, and there are no adequate solutions. If we don't do something, in five years we are not going to recognize the citrus industry, which is Florida's signature crop."

To come up with solutions, Putnam's 2013 budget proposal recommends $9 million for research and to help growers protect their crops' health. Gov. Rick Scott's budget would provide only half that.

Lawmakers should go with Putnam's plan.

This is a crisis not just for growers but for the state economy. Citrus represents a $9 billion-a-year industry. It supplies about 90 percent of the nation's orange juice.

A University of Florida study last year estimated the lower orange juice production that has resulted from greening has cost the state's economy $3.6 billion in lost revenues and 6,600 jobs.

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

As the Agriculture Department details, the infected trees produce misshapen and bitter fruit and eventually stop producing. The trees usually die within five years. The only current way to combat the disease is to remove the tree. It was first introduced into Florida in 1998.

As Putnam points out, prior to 2004, the state had about 800,000 acres in citrus production. Now that is down to about 500,000 acres and greening, as well as development, was a major factor.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cut its forecast for this season's citrus production in Florida by 5 percent, to 146 million boxes from 154 million, partly due to the highest fallen fruit rate since 1970.

The Citrus Research and Development Foundation, a collaboration of the Florida Department of Agriculture, Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida Citrus Commission and the University of Florida, is on the case.

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, researcher are experimenting with various approaches:

Attacking the psyllids with chemical sprays or trying natural predators, such as a wasp from Asia.

Attempting to breed psyllids that don't transmit the bacteria.

Trying to develop antibiotics that will protect the trees from infection.

Putnam is hopeful more research dollars devoted solely to the disease will find an effective strategy.

The citrus industry requires an emergency rescue mission. Lawmakers should approve Putnam's request.

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune