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Florida fighting losing battle against 'citrus greening'

A vintage post card showing the extent of Florida's orange groves.
A vintage post card showing the extent of Florida's orange groves.

A tiny mottled brown bug, no bigger than a pencil eraser is threatening to destroy Florida's citrus industry, threatening its economy and its very identity, according to the Huffington Post on Sunday.

Think of Florida and the first thing that comes to mind is citrus fruits

The Sunshine State's $9.0 billion citrus industry is facing the biggest threat ever, due to a small bug that carries a lethal disease for which there is no cure. Called the Asian Citrus Psyllid, this invasive insect probably entered into this country when someone unknowingly brought in a cutting from an orange tree from Asia.

In China, the disease is called huanglongbing, meaning "the yellow dragon disease." In Florida, it's known simply as "greening." While the Psyllid bug feeds on the citrus tree, it leaves behind a lethal bacteria that gets into the tree's root and branch system. Fruit doesn't get beyond the greening phase, hence, the name of the disease.

The tree continues to produce fruit, but eventually, the disease clogs the tree's vascular system, and the fruit falls to the ground and rots and the tree slowly dies. The disease was first spotted in the state in 1998, and greening was discovered in Dade County, Florida in 2005. Since that time, growers have been fighting to save their livelihoods.

Nearly every one of Florida's citrus groves are now affected by the greening, and researchers, growers and economists all agree that the disease has already impacted the state's prominence as a leading citrus-growing region. Florida is second to Brazil in growing juice oranges, and supplies 80 percent of juice purchased in the United States.

The citrus greening disease was found in Southern California in 2012. The California State Department of Agriculture is also taking the threat of the greening disease very seriously, wanting to protect the state's $2.0 billion industry. While widespread damage would be done in California if the disease were to get out of hand, in Florida, the threat has already reached that point.

Since the disease was first named in 1929, scientists have been studying its morphology as well as searching for a cure for the disease. Trying to slow the spread of greening has also met with very little success. In 2010, researchers were able to take the bacteria from an infected lemon tree and infect periwinkle plants.

Periwinkle plants are easy to infect and respond well to antibiotic treatments. Scientists are testing the use of penicillin G sodium and biocide 2,2-dibromo-3-nitrilopropionamide as possible treatments because of the good results they observed with the infected periwinkle plants. In June of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated $ 31.5 million toward research to help in combatting the greening disease.

Since 2012 there has been ongoing research involving the incorporation of two spinach genes into citrus trees to improve disease resistance. Field trials have been started after greenhouse trials met with some success. There is a problem with genetically altered juice oranges being accepted by the public. That is another issue to be studied.

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