Citrus disease could kill California industry if Congress slows research, growers warn

A disease called citrus greening has devastated Florida’s citrus industry since its discovery in 2005. Agriculture officials are hoping they can stop it before California suffers the same fate.

Congress is poised to continue spending $25 million a year into finding a way to stop it. But the money will not come without second thoughts. Lawmakers are debating a variety of aspects of the farm bill, and some have quietly suggested that the citrus research money could be shifted into a general agricultural research category.

And while representatives of the citrus industry admit current progress on finding a cure — or lessening the impact of the disease — has been disappointing, they say the alternative is the death of the nation’s citrus industry.

“I’ve been involved in this industry for a long time, and this is the biggest fight we’ve ever had,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an advocacy organization for California citrus growers. “It’s got us frustrated, it’s got us scared, it’s got us nervous.”

As recently as 2012, Florida produced the vast majority of the nation’s oranges. California’s citrus production surpassed Florida’s after citrus greening infected about 80 percent of citrus trees in the Sunshine State — making the fruit bitter and unusable and permanently damaging the trees. Texas’s citrus production has also been affected by the disease.

If California’s citrus goes the same way as Florida’s, Nelsen said, U.S. consumers would likely see a doubling of citrus prices. The majority of citrus would have to be imported overseas, and the quality would also be inconsistent, he said.

The disease is caused by a bacterium called Huanglongbing, which is passed by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees. It can easily spread to other neighboring trees, decimating a commercial citrus grove in a matter of years. There is no cure right now, only ways to slow down the disease. It was found in the Southern California city of Hacienda Heights in 2012.

The second infected tree in the state wasn’t found until 2015, but within three years 853 infected trees became infected. More and more areas of California have been deemed at serious risk. The disease has gotten as far as San Gabriel, a northern suburb of Los Angeles, but the insect has been found as far north as Lincoln, outside of Sacramento.

It hasn’t been found in any commercial groves in California, but there are fears that California will eventually suffer the same fate as Florida.

“We’re hoping we never find it in a commercial grove, but there’s always that potential,” said Victoria Hornbaker, interim director of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

A report by citrus greening researchers earlier this year said a breakthrough cure was unlikely. Instead, master plans are necessary to curb the spread of the disease. Hornbaker said growers have learned from Florida’s mistakes and are cooperating to make it easier to contain the disease. All infected trees in California, for example, are uprooted immediately. Fruits transported in trucks must be fully covered by tarps.

But Nelsen and Hornbaker both admit that while there is promising research, nothing concrete has been found after $125 million in federal funds dedicated to finding a cure.

“In the beginning, there were too many ideas and a lot were wrong,” Nelsen said. “But when you’re starting from scratch you have to try everything out.”

“We’re a ways away, but if we don’t have this research, we don’t have a citrus industry,” he added.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby