Central Florida's Agri-Leader
A major research initiative designed to fight the virulent disease huanglongbing, also known as HLB or “greening,” that has devastated Florida's citrus industry, is expected to receive major funding from the state legislature during its current session.
The House has designated $8 million in its proposed 2013-14 budget and the Senate has recommended $7 million.
In addition, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has allocated $6 million in federal funding for pest and disease control, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam announced last month, while singling out HLB as a key focus.
“This disease is threatening the livelihood of thousands of individuals in this state and the very existence of Florida's signature citrus crop,” Putnam said.
Vic Story, president of The Story Companies, a major citrus grower based in Lake Wales, praised legislators for their support.
“It's obvious that as growers, we have friends in the state legislature and at the federal level that understand our problem and want to help,” he said.
Two key areas of ongoing research are controlling the psyllid that spreads HLB and developing a better understanding of the bacteria and how it affects citrus trees, Story said. “And the combination of those two things means we can limit its ability to harm our trees.”
Other important research initiatives include the development of new root stocks that can withstand HLB better than current varieties. “And if we can find those, we need more trees propagated from them,” Story said. “Then we have to make sure the fruit from those new root stocks is good.”
Growers are also asking that $500,000 be allocated for improvements in nursery programs and another $500,000 be invested in a genome project designed to help develop more budwood for replanting. “We just don't have enough budwood right now for the nursery guy to grow more trees and for everybody to do all the replanting they need to be doing to keep up with all of this,” Story said.
The research work already underway is being spearheaded by the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, under the auspices of the University of Florida.
The organization, which includes representatives from UF as well we the grower community, is currently conducting a series of conference calls to determine the best ways ways to expedite evaluation of root stocks that show best potential against greening, said Jude Grosser, a professor of citrus breeding and genetics at UF's Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.
“What we're trying to do now is to figure out what criteria should be used to select a small number of root stocks that they would want to look at on a large scale as fast as possible,” said Grosser, a major researcher in the effort. “We have some in the pipeline now that show a lower frequency and severity of infection. They're not the answer in the long run. But they could help in the short run.”
Another important area of investigation, Grosser said, is long-term genome research. “But if we can find a root stock that can mitigate the disease, then we won't have to rely on genetic engineering,” he said, adding that one obvious challenge will be propagating enough seeds for widespread replanting. “We have some preliminary data that shows promise,” he said. “But it's going to take a lot more work. And it would take a long time to build up a seed supply.”
Michael W. Sparks, CEO and executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, stressed that the new funding will largely be spent on short-term research projects intended to deliver beneficial practical results over the next two years.
CRDF is hopeful it has identified the most promising areas of research, Sparks said. “The issue is finding ways in the short term to keep trees productive until subsequent research actually finds a cure for HLB,” he said. “One promising area is in anti-microbial research - finding a better disease-resistant spray. It probably won't rid the tree of the bacteria or the disease. But it will help keep the tree productive. And that would be a very good intermediate step.”
Turning the corner on HLB is now more critical than ever, Sparks said, because major orange juice producers such as Tropicana and Minute Maid have recently announced their increased focus on NFC (not from concentrate) product, derived entirely from Florida oranges, as the fastest-growing segment of the juice market.
Given the market stakes and the availability of new research funding, Story, Grosser and Sparks said they are reasonably confident a long-term solution to HLB can be found.
“We started from ground zero on this disease five years ago,” Sparks said. “Since then, the research through CRDF has zeroed in on the best and brightest research projects for funding. We need a research breakthrough now. And I believe the faith of the industry in that research will pay dividends.”