In a sign of how troubled the citrus industry is about the dreaded "greening" disease, the state Department of Citrus is shifting millions of dollars into finding ways to combat the tree-killing bacteria.
With the next fiscal year starting July 1, the department is deciding how much it will continue to shrink its marketing funds — historically 80 percent of its budget — to divert into research. The amount has not been determined, but the increase in research dollars is expected to be substantial.
Citrus growers want to develop a tree that can withstand the disease, which reduces a tree's production, destroys the fruit's value and can kill the tree in five to eight years. It has spread to almost all of Florida's 32 citrus-producing counties. That makes it the citrus industry's public enemy No. 1, worse than hurricanes, frost and any other past disease.
The industry continues to recover from damage caused by the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons as it wrestles with citrus canker — a disease that causes lesions on the trees and fruit — but citrus growers fear greening more.
In the past five years, Florida citrus production has dropped from 230-million boxes a year to about 160-million, about 200-million fewer than leading producer Brazil.
This fiscal year alone, the Department of Citrus lowered its investment in marketing by more than 15 percent, to $40-million, to free up $10.7-million to fight greening.
"We've been calling it sort of a Manhattan Project effort," said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry trade association, referring to the project to develop the first nuclear weapon. "We're working in Tallahassee. We're working in Washington. It's priority No. 1."
The trade association has requested that the Department of Citrus' budget for the next fiscal year allocate 9 cents of the 24-cent box tax collected from citrus growers for research. That could be about $14-million if the crop is in the 160-million-box range. The box tax is a charge to citrus growers for each box of 90 pounds of oranges or 85 pounds of grapefruit.
Karen Mathis, a department spokeswoman, called the increase in research dollars "the most significant investment in research that the (department) has made to date."
The greening disease, also referred to as yellow dragon disease, has affected citrus production in Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil. The disease manifests itself with a yellowish color in the shape of a dragon. Infected trees cannot be cured of the disease, though it poses no threat to humans or animals.
Florida's citrus growers are taking steps to guard against the disease, but the solution, they say, is in the growing focus on research.
"Ultimately, we have to be in a position that we have disease-free trees developed," said Rick Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, the largest supplier of Florida not-from-concentrate orange juice."
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