An urgent need to find citrus greening cure: fund research now

March 6, 2013 

With the future of the citrus industry at stake, growers and scientists are urgently seeking a cure for a deadly disease that threatens to wipe out the valuable crops. Last month, more than 500 scientists from around the world gathered in Orlando to share their research into greening, a bacteria spread by insects that leaves fruit inedible and kills infected trees.

Rep. Vern Buchanan joined the battle last week by filing legislation that creates a federal trust fund dedicated to discovering an antidote to the highly contagious disease. Funded by up to $30 million annually over five years from current tariffs on citrus imports, the trust would boost research efforts considerably.

The Longboat Key Republican's bill is the House companion to Florida Sen. Bill Nelson's "Citrus Research and Development Trust Fund Act."

A cure is vital to protecting Florida's citrus industry, which generates a $9 billion annual economic impact from 473,000 acres of groves and 76,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The Sunshine State produces more than 80 percent of the nation's supply of citrus and is the second largest citrus producer in the world -- leading the world in grapefruit output and ranking only behind Brazil for oranges.

Citrus is vital to Manatee County, too, which ranks 10th in the state for citrus with more than 24,000 acres of crops. And Bradenton is home to juice giant Tropicana Products.

Since citrus greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB), was discovered in South Florida in 2005, within two years HLB had spread to all of the state's 32 citrus-growing counties. Greening was discovered in Texas and California last year and has also infected Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Hawaii.

University of Florida economists estimate the disease has caused $4.5 billion in economic damage and 8,200 lost jobs in this state alone.

Nelson first introduced his legislation in 2010 but the measure failed to gain support. The Democrat reintroduced it last year, and it now sits in a committee.

With the spread of this devastating disease to nine other states, there should be a groundswell of support for this economic and jobs protection bill.

Buchanan's companion measure has the support of the 21 other members of Florida's congressional delegation.

The federal government has made some investments into research, including $2 million for Florida's U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory at Fort Pierce in 2011. The Buchanan-Nelson bill would have a far greater impact -- possibly a game-changing one.

As the country's largest citrus producer, Florida should also receive the lion's share of research money. In a race against time, the Fort Pierce lab has made greening research its top priority, and the scientists and technicians could use additional support.

Florida legislators are also looking at a proposal, backed by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, to pump $9 million into battling citrus greening.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $2 million appropriation for the research, even while acknowledging industry fears.

The situation is all the more urgent today with the growing threat to the economy here and around the country.

Nelson and Buchanan should be able to enlist the support of other congressional delegations to help push this legislation through. Everyone should be alarmed about potentially paying $5 for an orange imported from another country in the future, as Nelson suggested two years ago.

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