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Florida citrus growers asked to increase tax for disease research

by Christina DiMartino | November 30, 2009
Bob Norberg, deputy executive director for the Florida Department of Citrus in Lakeland, FL, told The Produce News that the current three-year referendum on citrus, which taxes 1 cent per box to growers for research on citrus diseases, ends with the 2009-10 citrus season.

"We are asking growers if they want to continue to tax themselves to support citrus research and to increase the tax to 3 cents per box," said Mr. Norberg. "Depending on the size of the crop, that would generate between $5 [million] and $5.5 million for continued research."

The ballots asking for the increase were issued during the last half of November and are expected to be returned by mid-December. Mr. Norberg said that grower organizations in the state have expressed positive support for the requested increase.

Research under the current referendum has been going on for three years for both citrus canker and Huanglongbing disease, commonly referred to as citrus greening. Mr. Norberg said that approximately 80 percent of the research has been directed at greening because it is more deadly to citrus trees. Research efforts have gained strides in the past three years.

"The genetic makeup of the HLB genome has been mapped and is on the public domain web site for scientists around the world to work with," said Mr. Norberg. "There has also been some progress on less expensive, low-volume pesticide use to control the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads greening. The third leg of the stool is that research is working on creating a resistance within the tree itself with the use of natural components."

The natural components include the use of predator insects such as ladybugs. Mr. Norberg said that some growers are currently releasing them in their groves.

"More cutting-edge research is being conducted on modifying the psyllid in a way that prevents it from reproducing," he added. "The $5.5 million that would be collected through the new referendum would provide a solid and ongoing basis for research for not only canker and greening but also for other diseases, and it will help to draw other co-investor sources for research."

Research has also shown that the psyllid that carries greening has a cousin that is affecting potato crops, causing a condition called zebra chips. Potato chips produced using infected potatoes are scarred and discolored. Scientists feel the research being done on the citrus psyllid could help the potato industry with this problem.

"A recent conference held at Texas A&M University drew both citrus and potato researchers who are collaborating on what they know about the bacteria," said Mr. Norberg. "We are confident that we're making headway on this disease. With the passing of the new referendum, we should have sufficient funds to fight not just these diseases but also other invasive bacteria that may affect Florida citrus."