5:19am

Fri December 13, 2013
The Salt

USDA Steps Up The Fight To Save Florida's Oranges

Originally published on Fri December 13, 2013 7:52 am

The citrus industry is facing a crisis. It's called citrus greening — a disease that has devastated orange production in Florida since it first showed up eight years ago. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new effort to try to control the disease before it destroys the nation's citrus industry.

Citrus greening is carried by psyllids, tiny insects no bigger than a pinhead. It is caused by a bacterium that makes the fruit bitter and unmarketable. In California, Texas, and especially in Florida, where it first took root, many fear the disease could wipe out America's production of oranges, grapefruits and lemons.

It's a disease imported from Asia. Since its was first discovered in Florida in 2005, citrus greening has cost the industry $4 billion and 6,000 jobs, says Jack Payne, the senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida. Payne says all of Florida's citrus groves are infected.

"We have so many growers now in a $9 billion industry just hanging on by their fingernails, literally, trying to get a cure for this terrible disease," he says.

In Florida, because of the disease, USDA says the orange crop will be off 9 percent from last season. It's the second straight year that production has declined and the lowest citrus harvest in Florida in nearly 25 years.

Scientists are trying to develop disease-resistant trees. They're experimenting with different rootstocks and genetically modified trees. But so far, there hasn't been a breakthrough.

To help the effort, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that several agencies within USDA are coming together to coordinate research and the fight to stop citrus greening. He said, "We felt it was necessary for us to have a more coordinated effort with the state and local partners and with the industry."
Vilsack says USDA has already spent $250 million combating citrus greening. With this announcement, he says, the agency is making an additional $1 million available for research immediately. And $9 million more in research funding is in the farm bill that's currently before Congress.

A spokesman with Florida Citrus Mutual, a grower's group, said they welcome the additional funding and the new coordinated approach to citrus greening. But a priority for Florida growers is the creation of a federal Citrus Research Trust Fund that could provide $30 million in funding to stop greening before it wipes out the industry.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's business news starts with saving citrus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced yesterday that it's spearheading a multiagency effort to prevent a disease from destroying the nation's citrus industry. The disease is called citrus greening, and it has already caused devastation in Florida's orange production since it first showed up eight years ago.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Greening is carried by a tiny insect no bigger than a pinhead. It's a disease that came from Asia. Dr. Jack Payne, of the University of Florida, says since it was first discovered here in 2005, it's cost the industry $4 billion and 6,000 jobs. Payne says almost all of Florida's citrus groves are infected.

JACK PAYNE: We have so many growers now in a $9 billion industry just hanging on by their fingernails, literally, trying to get a cure for this terrible disease.

ALLEN: Citrus greening is caused by a bacterium that makes the food bitter and unmarketable and eventually, kills the tree. In Florida, because of the disease, USDA says the orange crop will be off 9 percent from last season - the lowest harvest in nearly 25 years.

Scientists are trying to develop disease-resistant trees. But so far, there hasn't been a breakthrough. To help the effort, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced yesterday several agencies within USDA are coming together to coordinate research and the fight to stop citrus greening.

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: We felt that it was necessary for us to have a more coordinated effort with our state and local partners, and with the industry.

ALLEN: Vilsack said USDA is making $1 million available for research immediately. An additional $9 million in research funding is in the farm bill that's currently before Congress.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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