Amid the global coronavirus plague, Florida is suffering another pestilence from China — a bacteria that’s killing the Sunshine State’s biggest cash crop.
Florida citrus is in free fall. This is a catastrophe for the state and a public health and homeland security issue for the nation.
Cheap foreign competition from South American cartels and disastrous hurricanes are only part of the problem. Much worse is a disease called citrus greening, known as HLB after its Chinese name huang long bing.
HLB is decimating our citrus groves. An inexpensive, off-the-shelf solution has shown promise for years, but the bureaucratized and politicized Florida institution responsible for testing has sat on its hands. That delay allowed a gnat-sized insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, to spread HLB bacteria nationwide.
The leaves of infected trees fall off. Without leaves, the trees can’t absorb sunlight for photosynthesis to produce sugar. The branches wither and die.
The roots that sustain the tree with water and nutrients rot in the soil. During the tree’s slow death, the fruits become stunted and malformed, their peels ugly and thick, and their juice bitter and inedible. The farmers go broke. And Florida’s famous treasure of citrus fruit becomes a thing of the past.
HLB struck Florida in 2005 and infected most citrus farms in the state by 2012. Production of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and other citrus already had been contracting from a high of 304 million boxes a year in the 1997-98 growing season. A decade later, production was down to less than 204 million boxes a year.
With HLB, things started getting really bad.
In the last season for which we have official statistics, 2017-18, Florida produced only 49.5 million boxes of citrus.
That’s an 86 percent collapse over twenty years.
Florida citrus producers and state officials responded to HLB ten years ago by creating the Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), whose mission is to “advance disease and production research and product development activities to ensure the survival and competitiveness of Florida’s citrus growers through innovation.”
After spending $150 million in taxpayer- and industry-funded research to defeat HLB, CRDF has failed. “Once a tree is infected, there is no cure,” warns the US Department of Agriculture.
But there might be a cure at hand. Part of the CRDF’s failure was its refusal for years to consider a potential rapid, low-cost solution repeatedly offered for testing. Instead, CRDF focused on expensive projects from politically connected chemical multinationals.
An organic fertilizer invented by Winsor Eveland, a former Navy intelligence officer, and business partner Ken Brown, might hold the key. Five years of tests show that the fertilizer, called CitruSaver, relieves many of HLB symptoms in the tree and fruit.
“Somebody ought to be looking into this,” said Bob Johnson, a well-known plant-disease expert hired by Winsor and Brown to conduct initial scientific field trials on infected trees.
“I was a little apprehensive when we started out with small trials, and it worked,” Johnson said. “I brought growers out there who would voluntarily let me treat some of their trees, and everything worked.”
His tests with CitruSaver showed invigorated tree roots, foliage, and fruit quality. “There’s no doubt that it improves tree vigor,” Johnson said. “There is plenty of data there on small plots to say that this product works.”
Johnson is the first to acknowledge that the findings require more comprehensive validation from an authority like CRDF. The citrus industry is bombarded with companies hawking “cures.”
Two months ago, the University of Florida’s Pilot Plant in Lake Alfred confirmed what Brown had been communicating to CRDF all along: the organic product improved citrus juice quality in the treated trees versus the control group within a few months after application. But CRDF is still avoiding a study.
Meanwhile, USDA reports that the HLB plague metastasized to citrus crops 13 other states and territories. The citrus plague is now an agricultural pandemic.
Michael Waller, Ph.D., is Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC.