ST. PETERSBURG — Federal agriculture officials said Thursday they are allocating millions of dollars for research to solve problems caused by the devastating citrus greening bacteria that threatens Florida's $9 billion citrus industry.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement that $25 million in funding comes from the 2014 Farm Bill. An additional $6.5 million will be sent to projects through a group formed to combat greening.
Florida's citrus growers have been the hardest hit in the United States — virtually all the state's groves are infected, experts say — and researchers are working furiously to come up with a vaccine or cure. Growers warn that if a solution isn't found, Florida's iconic crop could be lost.
"USDA is committed to the fight against citrus greening, including making major research investments to counter this destructive disease," Vilsack said in the statement. "The citrus industry and the thousands of jobs it supports are depending on ground-breaking research to neutralize this threat."
The 2014 Farm Bill provides $25 million per year for a total of $125 million of the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative funding toward citrus health research over the next five years, Vilsack said.
Priority will be given to projects that span several states.
Though key citrus-growing regions such as California and Texas haven't been as affected by greening, growers, researchers and experts are also working on a cure in an attempt to stave off the devastating disease.
In Florida, the orange crop — which is used mostly for juice — is approaching its lowest harvest in decades. Experts blame greening.
The Florida Citrus Commission met this week and said the 2013-14 citrus season will probably end with the lowest orange crop in 29 years at 104.3 million boxes. Fruit size during this season was also near a record low, which is also attributed to trees weakened by greening.
Greening enters a tree via the jumping plant lice known as Asian citrus psyllid. The lice suck on leaf sap and leave behind bacteria. The bacteria starve the tree of nutrients, leading to sour fruit. The tree eventually dies.
"Citrus production in Florida may be at a 30-year low, but we're not ready to throw in the towel," Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said. "We'll use every tool in our toolbox to fight citrus greening and save Florida's signature crop. A $9 billion industry that supports 75,000 jobs is at stake, and we can't afford to lose."
Recently, University of Florida researchers said they've found a possible treatment for greening but cautioned it could be years before it could become commercially available to growers.
The team from UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said it has discovered a chemical that kills the citrus greening bacteria.