Greening awareness grows
JOHN BUCHANANDespite the dire toll disease has already taken on Florida's citrus crop, industry leaders are increasingly optimistic that awareness of the problem and political support for finding a solution are gaining momentum.
Published: February 6, 2013
Published: February 6, 2013
Doug Bournique, executive vice president of Vero Beach-based Indian River Citrus League, organized a comprehensive presentation at the recent Florida Citrus Show that focused on the threat of virulent diseases such as huanglongbing, also known as HLB or "greening."
Topics and speakers were coordinated by Brian Boman, a professor or agricultural and biological engineering at University of Florida's Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce.
"The goal was to explain to growers all the positive things that are starting to happen," Bournique said. "And it all really starts with funding."
Bournique has been part of a consortium led by Florida Citrus Mutual to secure $9 million in emergency research funding from the Florida Legislature to help develop new citrus varieties and rootstalks that can resist HLB.
Bournique gives high praise to Gov. Rick Scott for his leadership on the issue. Since May, Indian River Citrus League, Florida Citrus Mutual and UF researchers have worked closely with the governor and his staff to create a detailed action plan.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has also been a strong supporter of the initiative and has tentatively included the $9 million in funding in his budget, subject to final approval by the Legislature.
Bournique and Michael W. Sparks, Florida Citrus Mutual CEO and executive vice president, are both guardedly optimistic that the new funding will be approved and become available July 1.
"I spoke to some legislators just this morning," Bournique said on Jan. 30. "And everybody understands the severity of this disease. No one has ever seen anything like it in the entire history of the Florida citrus industry. It is devastating. And it has already cost 7 or 8 thousand jobs. And the governor and legislators now understand that another 72,000 jobs and an iconic Florida industry are now at risk."
Another important development, Bournique said, is growing support from Florida media.
"What I've gotten from all of the press, from major newspapers to agricultural papers, is strong support represented by articles like the one in the Orlando Sentinel the other day," he said. "And those articles are helping generate awareness and offers of support. This year the problem has really become visible statewide. And that's a big step in the right direction."
Aiding the effort to get emergency funding are the preliminary results generated by researchers. "They are now looking at the right varieties and rootstalks," Bournique said. "The available data shows that some rootstalks are better than others at resisting disease. And that is a very good sign. And growers are listening now."
The challenge, however, Boman noted, is that even with successful research into scientific solutions to the problem, a question remains as to whether new varieties would earn consumer trust and acceptance.
"We don't know yet whether they will be commercially viable," he said. "For example, genetically modified organisms are banned in Europe, so there could be some impact on markets."
But, Boman said, although disease has been a threat to Florida citrus crops since the late 1800s, HLB is particularly insidious and destructive.
That's because trees and groves can be infected for up to two years before a grower knows and takes action.
"So during that time, it is spreading to other trees, but you don't know that yet," Boman said. "That's what makes this disease such a problem. It had already spread throughout the state before we even knew it was here."
Given the urgency of the issue, Boman said new research funding is critical.
"Without it," he said, "the industry is doomed."
The good news, Boman said, is that a new sense of optimism among growers and researchers has started to show.
"From the discussions I had with growers at the Citrus Show, there is now at least some limited optimism that solutions to the problem can be found," he said. "So we're making progress. And if we continue making those strides, we will find a solution in the foreseeable future. And two years ago, that optimism did not exist."