In the next three months, Florida citrus growers will have to decide whether to extend for another six years the citrus box tax, the proceeds of which help to pay for citrus greening research at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center and other research universities and laboratories.
The Citrus Research and Development Foundation, Inc., Box Tax Advisory Council voted unanimously in June to recommend continuation of the citrus box tax at the current assessment rate of $.03 (3 cents) per harvested box for the last year of the current referendum, fiscal year 2015-16.
The Florida citrus industry established the Citrus Research and Development Foundation in 2010 to combat greening, which is threatening to destroy the state’s $10.7 billion citrus industry. The foundation’s budget has been $16-19 million annually – with the funding coming from the research box tax, as well as marketing/promotion box taxes, state and federal funds, and donations. The vast majority goes directly to research projects to solve the greening problem.
“IFAS has been core to the majority of research on greening, “said Harold Browning, chief operating officer of the foundation. “Look at the attention that’s been paid to this disease – it’s your grower dollars at work.”
Almost all of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ 200 employees at the CREC in Lake Alfred are devoted to stopping the disease. Their funding comes from the box tax, in addition to legislative appropriations and research grants. Facilities include more than 600 acres of groves, greenhouses, a fresh fruit packinghouse, a juice processing pilot plant and more than 40 laboratories.
“As a career university scientist and administrator, I’m amazed at how rapidly the science has come along,” Browning said. “The strong institutional commitment that IFAS has shown illustrates dedication to the industry.”
The disease bacterium first enters a citrus tree via the tiny Asian Citrus Psyllid. When introduced into the plant by leaf feeding, the bacteria then move through the tree via the phloem – the veins of the tree. The disease starves the tree of nutrients, damages its roots and the tree produces fruits that are small, and misshapen, and have reduced quality, making it unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or, for the most part, juice. Most infected trees eventually become non-productive and the disease has already affected millions of citrus trees in North America.
Citrus greening was first detected in Florida in 2005. Florida has lost approximately $7.8 billion in revenue, 162,200 citrus acres and 7,513 jobs since 2007, according to researchers with UF/IFAS.
Although current methods to control the spread of citrus greening are limited to aggressive psyllid control and the removal and destruction of infected trees, UF/IFAS researchers are working to defeat it on a number of fronts, including trying to suppress the psyllid, breeding citrus rootstock that shows better greening resistance and testing treatments that could be used on trees.
Browning and other IFAS experts say the solution to the greening problem will most likely come from genetic engineering; figuring out which genes are resistant to greening and inserting them into commonly available rootstocks and scions.
“This is a very complex system to work with,” Browning said. “Everybody has stepped up.”