FLORIDA GROWERS just harvested the smallest orange crop in nearly 50 years, and all because of a tiny insect that spreads an incurable disease. Citrus greening (a.k.a., Huanglongbing or HLB), a bacterial disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, is an existential threat to Florida’s signature crop. Trees infected with citrus greening produce fruit that prematurely drops, is bitter, misshapen and unmarketable. Worse, infected trees die within a few years.
In just 10 years since the discovery of the invasive psyllid, citrus greening has spread to every citrus-producing county in the state, infected more than half of Florida’s citrus groves and cut Florida’s annual citrus harvest by more than 60 percent. A casual glance at almost any grove will reveal evidence of its destruction.
Florida’s citrus industry has a more than $10 billion economic impact on our state and supports more than 64,000 jobs, all of which are currently at risk. The health of Florida citrus is important to every Floridian — not just those who depend on it for their livelihoods. With a nearly 500,000-acre footprint in Florida, citrus has a profound impact on so many of our interior counties and the quality of life of the surrounding communities. The industry’s continued decline could have a devastating ripple effect.
However, hope is not lost. There is strong support for Florida’s citrus industry to fight the spread of citrus greening and support research for a cure. All told, Florida growers, the federal government, and state government have invested more than $200 million to save citrus. As part of the most recent state budget, our department fought for and received more than $20 million to support critical research, grow clean citrus stock, remove and replant diseased trees, and more.
With this financial support, we are employing every tool in the toolbox to find a solution. Our department, research institutions, and private industry are working on some promising options to prevent the spread of greening, treat an infected tree, and develop a disease-resistant tree, but no silver bullet has been uncovered. In addition, our department is improving our infrastructure to help the industry quickly rebuild if a solution is found. We have expanded our budwood facility and opened a new germplasm facility to provide growers with the resources they need to replant lost trees and release new varieties of citrus for growers.
We cannot overstate the challenges facing Florida’s citrus industry, but I believe that with continued support, the innovation of our growers will produce a solution to this existential problem.
by FLORIDA COMMISSIONER OF AGRICULTURE ADAM H. PUTNAM