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The leadership of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual endorsed federal legislation July 12 that is intended to help the Florida citrus industry battle serious invasive pests and diseases.

The bill would divert a portion of the federal tariff on imported citrus products, including frozen concentrate orange juice, to finance the Citrus Disease Research & Development Trust Fund. A nine-member board comprised of representatives from citrus-producing states Florida, California, Arizona and Texas will distribute the money.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), has attracted broad support from members of the domestic citrus industry.

"We are in the fight of our lives," Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, said in a July 12 press release. "This will certainly give us a leg up in protecting an essential U.S. industry."

Huanglongbing, or citrus greening, is threatening to wipe out the Florida citrus industry. The disease, which can be found in all 32 of Florida's commercial citrus-producing counties, attacks the vascular system of trees and can kill them in two years. The disease was discovered in 2005 and is not native to Florida.

Over the past four years, Florida growers have committed more than $39 million to research HLB and its vector, the Asian citrus psyllid, in the laboratory setting. The effort has resulted in more than 100 ongoing research projects.

"Over the next few months, the domestic citrus industry will be aggressively communicating the importance of this bill to members of Congress," Mr. Sparks said in the release.

The Florida citrus industry creates a $9 billion annual economic impact, employing nearly 76,000 people and covering more than 576,000 acres. Founded in 1948 and currently representing nearly 8,000 grower members, Florida Citrus Mutual is among the state's larger citrus grower organization.