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State prevails in war on canker

Florida formally declared itself free of citrus canker Thursday, ending a costly eradication program and a nine-year period of anguish and controversy for its top agricultural industry.

A joint federal-state technical advisory committee disbanded after receiving a report that three groves infested with the most virulent form of the bacterial disease had been canker-free more than two years.

This signaled an end to federal regulations and a partial quarantine in two counties.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford said eradication measures, which began in 1984 with the destruction of 20-million citrus nursery plants infested by a milder form of canker, had cost the state, the citrus industry and the federal government more than $200-million.

The eradication and quarantine program for the nursery strain of the fruit-and-tree disease ended about 1990.

But inspectors for the program in 1986 began detecting isolated outbreaks of the stronger, Asiatic strain of canker in a patches of Manatee, Sarasota, Pinellas and Highland counties.

It turned out that none of it posed a serious threat to Florida's sprawling, billion-dollar commercial industry, as originally believed.

"The end of the road to eradication has not come without controversy," said Deputy Administrator Glen Lee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noting that scientific opinion had been divided about the severity of the canker threat.

But Lee praised the research efforts that led to the eradication program, enacted "to keep our product moving" into the marketplace.

A mysterious form of canker was discovered at Ward's Citrus Nursery in Polk County in September 1984. Before the month was over, it had spread and officials feared it would invade Florida's citrus belt and devastate the industry.

The ensuing eradication battle _ waged in a crisis atmosphere _ was one of the most controversial and expensive campaigns ever conducted against a citrus pest.

What was thought to be the virulent form of canker _ Asiatic or Canker A _ was later determined to be a harmless, leaf-spotting strain that posed no threat to the groves.

Canker is the common name for the disease caused by bacteria that damages fruit, leaves and twigs and weakens the trees. Fresh fruit is spotted and unmarketable although the disease is not a threat to humans.

Asiatic canker can rapidly destroy a grove or an entire crop.

Prevention and treatment methods are unknown, and growers and industry officials in many countries have historically burned trees as the only form of control.

In 1984, state agriculture officials, joined by industry leaders, acted quickly to quarantine infested nurseries and suspicious groves _ and to burn trees _ to ensure that Florida could continue to market its fruit and juice throughout the nation.

Led by then-Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Conner, officials relied on scientific advice.

But researchers for the state and federal governments have long disagreed about the various strains of the disease _ and which should be considered a serious danger to fruit.

The eradication program was costly for Florida growers, for the state and for the federal government in many ways.

Crawford said Thursday that operational costs for the Agriculture Department totaled $27-million. Some 400 nursery owners received compensation for their losses totaling $79-million, and industry and federal expenditures were estimated at $100-million.

The owners of the groves where Canker A was detected destroyed their trees to eliminate the possible spread of the virulent strain.

"The entire citrus-producing industry and every resident with backyard citrus trees owe a great debt to Walter Preston, Al Repetto and Ed and John Smoak for voluntarily destroying their valuable groves to prevent the spread of citrus canker," Crawford said.

The four growers received plaques from Crawford. They were not compensated for their losses.

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