State lawmakers are taking their agricultural committee on the road to discuss citrus greening in Central Florida. The trip comes as projections for the state’s harvest continue to tumble.
Earlier this week, the US Department of Agriculture released new forecasts for Florida’s 2015-2016 orange crop. The prediction of 74 million boxes is almost 25 percent less than last year’s harvest—itself already heavily impacted by citrus greening. And it’s 6 million less than they expected just a month ago.
“What that conveys,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says, “a six million box drop in a month, and some of that I think is attributable to a shift in the formula, and the rolling over the last five years instead of maybe the last nine years, I think there are some pieces to that, but it is a powerful data point about just how serious this disease continues to be.”
Less than a decade ago, Florida was producing more than double the current USDA projection—turning out more than 160 million boxes in the ‘07-‘08 and ‘08-‘09 harvests.
Michael Sparks of Florida Citrus Mutual says the state has been able to secure $125 million in federal aid through the farm bill, but ongoing state support is still needed.
“We’re still going to need your help,” he says, “and we’re going to need your help with the state support but time is not on our side. As was mentioned earlier—the cost of the research—the $176 million—it’s dwarfed by what we can lose.”
But with almost $200 million going into fighting the disease so far, Sen. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) says some are beginning to ask tough questions.
“While everybody to a person, I think, that I’ve interacted with in the Senate, both Republican and Democrat, agree that funding research for greening is an absolute priority, the questions also come back, what’s our return on investment?” Galvano says.
Harold Browning, Chief Operating Officer for the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, says he gets that question a lot, too.
But there isn’t a very good answer.
“An ROI for a citrus industry that’s dying due to disease probably can only be measured when we start making gains, and we see those production levels returning, the confidence of growers to replant is there and we starting to see some economic benefit from all this investment,” Browning says.
Browning says researchers are finding some success treating affected trees with steam, and Florida’s currently petitioning the EPA to allow the use of antimicrobial sprays—basically antibiotics—to attack the bacteria that causes greening. Researchers are also investigating ways to disrupt the genetic material of the bug that spreads the bacteria as a way of blocking the disease’s advance.