Citrus Industry Not Waiting for Public Funds to Fight HLB

The other day we had a story about the building of a high-level bio secure lab adjacent the University of Riverside, where citrus research has its genesis in California.

The new lab is a big deal and necessary in an age where Huanglongbing (HLB) threatens to wipe out the U.S. citrus industry. However, the story is really in the California citrus industry’s $8 million commitment to avoid such a fate.

For those paying attention to the citrus industry we’ve heard the stories: much, if not all of Florida’s commercial citrus is infected with HLB because of an insidious little bug most people have likely never heard of.

Texas too has the disease in its citrus and though the disease has been found only in residential neighborhoods in California’s Los Angeles basin, it has not been reported in California’s commercial citrus groves, which accounts for much of the nation’s domestically-grown fresh citrus.

The Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) is a tiny, invasive pest first found in the United States in Palm Beach County, Florida in 1998. How tiny is it? Simply put, you need to be looking for it with good eyes to see it.

Though tiny in size the pest is capable mass destruction. It vectors HLB, a bacterial disease in citrus for which there is no cure; hence the reason for the lab in Riverside. While in the process of killing citrus trees, the disease also causes fruit to become misshapen and will negatively impact the flavor of citrus juice.

When interviewing Joel Nelsen, president of industry trade association California Citrus Mutual (CCM) for the story, I learned that UC Riverside tried unsuccessfully to obtain federal funds to build the Level-3 biosafety lab. These are the kinds of labs that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, perform specialized research on infectious agents in tightly controlled and protective environments.

Nelsen shared with Western Farm Press that after learning about the university’s inability to secure public funds for the lab, the industry seized the opportunity to lead the effort.

According to Nelsen, Wonderful Citrus approached CCM with the idea of building the facility with private industry money. In simple terms, the facility will be owned, operated and managed by the citrus industry to “find the cure for HLB.”

The facility’s venue should not signal that the citrus industry is locked into research projects solely by UCR or California entities. The goal is to conduct the “best available research.”

Nelsen’s bold words were without qualifying or hedging and serve as an example of a firm and necessary attitude California citrus industry leaders have taken since the psyllid was first found in California.

Through focused and consistent leadership this “take no prisoners” attitude still needs to permeate commercial citrus. Unscientific surveys taken at citrus grower events in the past couple years suggest that not all growers and PCAs see HLB or the psyllid for what they are.

Homeowners need to understand the danger too because it’s their citrus trees that are dying because of the psyllids their trees harbor. It’s because of this HLB now has a toe-hold in California.

While it’s sad to hear about the absent political will to publicly fund necessary research,Wonderful Citrus, California Citrus Mutual and others involved are to be commended for their willingness to fund and manage this lab.

UCR is likewise to be lauded for its willingness to work with the commercial industry, not just now for this purpose, but for reasons that date back 100 years to the formation of the California Citrus Experiment Station and the need then for there to be a partnership between commercial citrus growers and the research community.

Source: Todd Fitchette, Western Farm Press

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