Finally, stronger fight against disastrous citrus greening in offing

December 19, 2013 

Jim Skinner, owner of Backyard Citrus Care Company, sprays a grapefruit tree which is suffering from citrus greening, a bacteria which cannot be killed. Skinner sprays trees that are infected with a mix of nutrients including manganese, zinc, copper, iron, and nitrogen which helps the trees but does not cure them. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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The urgency of Florida's citrus greening plague finally hit home in Washington as the federal government created an "emergency response framework" to propel research into curing the deadly bacterial disease. Last week's action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture comes as Florida continues to scramble to stave off this economic disaster.

The estimate for the Sunshine State's 2013-2014 citrus harvest is the smallest in 24 years, and Florida growers and scientists figure 69 million citrus trees are infected with greening, which first appeared near Homestead in 2005.

The incurable plague will eventually threaten the entire nation's citrus crop unless researchers are successful. Florida's $9 billion citrus industry, the country's largest, is under siege.

A University of Florida study last year found citrus greening has cost the state's economy some $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs from 2006-2012.

The country cannot afford to let that economic hemorrhaging continue unabated, as we opined back in March and on other occasions.

The USDA finally embraced the urgency by creating a public-private task force of various agencies, experts and others to put a coordinated and sharper focus on research.

During that announcement, one high-level USDA official captured the fresh approach with an apt description: "We're treating this almost like a hurricane response." The issue should have commanded that strategy before now.

Southwest Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, joined forces long ago to push for bipartisan legislation that would boost federal spending on greening research by up to $30 million a year annually over the next five years.

But Congress is playing games with the Farm Bill once again and consideration has been pushed back into January.

A Buchanan spokesman told this Editorial Board, though, that hopes are high this new funding for citrus greening will be part of a final Farm Bill.

This is clearly a bipartisan issue that deserve attention now, lest Americans suffer higher market prices as crop yields continue to decline and the disease spreads around the country.

Greening, a bacteria spread by one particular insect, causes the fruit to be misshapen and bitter and trees eventually die. Manatee County ranks 10th in the state for citrus production with more than 24,000 acres of groves and 3.1 million commercial citrus tree.

Dean Mixon, the owner of Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, put the plight of growers in stark terms:

"You can hardly find a grove that hasn't had (greening)," he told Herald reporter Sabrina Rocco upon hearing about the USDA's new strategy. His farm is among those hit by the disease.

Research and eradication efforts have been ongoing in Florida for years. The state's citrus growers have contributed more than $60 million toward the battle over the past seven years.

But spraying crops with insecticide more often has proven costly mostly ineffective as has the application of more nutrients. Research is focusing on interfering with the insect's reproduction capabilities and ability to transmit the disease.

A solution appears years away, although the USDA's new "emergency response framework" adds coordination to the effort and should speed up the process.

Meanwhile, we hope Buchanan and Nelson find success with more research funding under the Farm Bill. This would be an additional investment in saving a vital and valuable crop.

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