April 24, 2014

The Last Great Canker War?

Mike Vogel | 2/1/2001
On Sept. 28, 1995, Louis Willio Francillon, a Florida Department of Agriculture worker, was inspecting a triangular fruit fly trap hanging in a sour orange tree on Southwest 16th Street in Westchester in west Miami-Dade County. Inspectors like Francillon provide early detection of exotic pests like the medfly that can spell disaster for Florida's agriculture industry.

Francillon found no alien flies that day. But as he turned from the trap, he looked up into a grapefruit tree backlit by the afternoon sun, which illuminated a leaf with a bright yellow halo surrounding a brown lesion. Francillon got out his magnifying lens. What he saw was no everyday citrus malady. "It looked most like citrus canker, which I saw in pictures before."

Francillon's discovery set in motion what's become Florida's third bona fide war against canker, a bacterial infection that originated in Asia and first blighted Florida groves around 1910. And what a war it's been: Some 1,400 canker hunters deployed throughout Florida have searched out and destroyed 1.6 million trees.

At the height of the program, crews scattered across 2,000 Florida properties were felling an average of 5,000 trees every day. Now in its sixth year, the campaign -- costing nearly $300 million in government spending and hundreds of millions of dollars more in destroyed trees -- has become the largest plant disease eradication program in U.S. history.

It also may have been a giant waste, and it is questionable whether the state can -- or should -- mount an effort of this size again. There are two reasons. One: Canker -- which everyone acknowledges will return -- is a foe whose real threat is increasingly doubtful. Two: The most distinguishing feature of the recent war, aside from its scale, has been the clash between the state's agriculture industry and urban homeowners. The relative power of those two groups is changing fast and will have a great deal to say about whether the state can mount another big canker eradication effort when canker returns.

The Science
Physically, canker does two bad things to citrus trees. It leaves ugly, raised lesions on "flush growth" -- the brighter green young leaves and branches and the peel of fruit. It also causes trees to drop some fruit before harvesting time. Grapefruit gets hit worse than oranges or tangerines. Key limes suffer more than Persian limes. Broadly speaking, yields can fall 20% to 50%, says Dean Gabriel, a University of Florida plant pathologist.

Canker, however, doesn't kill the tree, and it doesn't alter the taste of the fruit. An orange from an infected tree can be made into juice like any other orange. Copper-based sprays, already widely used in the industry to protect fruit from other peel blemishes and to enhance appearance, can keep canker in check, says Jack Whiteside, a retired UF plant pathologist. Heinz K. Wutscher, a retired USDA horticulturist, agrees: "With one or two extra sprays, the threat can be conquered."

Canker's not even the worst threat to Florida's citrus. At the International Society of Citriculture congress in Lake Buena Vista in December, scientific presentations on citrus ills filled display boards.

Researchers agree that tristeza, a viral disease spread by aphids that can cause a quick decline in trees, is a worse threat than canker. The state already has a moderate strain. A medfly infestation would be a great calamity. And doomsday for the citrus industry? Chinese greening, a disease that kills trees quickly and is wiping out India's citrus production. An insect known to carry greening , the Asian citrus psyllid, showed up in Florida in 1998 -- but so far without greening along for the ride.

The Politics
The fuss over canker is a creature born of trade rules, not real menace: Places that don't have canker impose quarantines on fruit from places that do. The rules -- affecting the sale of fresh fruit, especially exports -- skew the game even for states like Florida, where the bulk of the state's production goes into juice; only 6% of Florida's industry is sales of fresh fruit.

Citrus-producing states such as Arizona and California -- even though their dry climates are inhospitable to humidity-loving canker -- forbid the import of fruit from infected areas, for example. Citrus-producing nations use canker to keep imports out -- as has Florida. "If you control a market, you don't want competition," says one official from Argentina, which fought Arizona and California last year to export lemons from Argentina's canker-free region to the U.S.

Says UF's Gabriel: If not for quarantine laws, canker "wouldn't greatly affect the marketability of the fruit." Even USDA plant pathologist Tim Gottwald, whose research led the state to implement a 1,900-foot clear-cut zone around infected citrus, described canker in his study of the bacterium's spread as "so devastating" primarily because of its "socioeconomic and political impact."

The War
With trade rules dominating the policy debate, the question of how harmful canker really is becomes academic. After Francillon's discovery, the state mounted a limited eradication strategy, but canker continued to spread -- so fast that Gottwald became convinced that the infection had become too prevalent to be wiped out. He told the industry, which responded by getting $175 million in government funding to try to eradicate it anyway. And in February 2000, based on Gottwald's research, the state upped the cutting zone to 1,900 feet. A wider clear-cut meant fewer inspectors were necessary -- since a destroyed tree doesn't need reinspecting.

The state has ended up essentially clear-cutting the majority of citrus trees across most of the densely inhabited areas of south Florida. But the policy proved as quiet and subtle as the chainsaws used to implement it. Outrage mounted as eradication crews chopped and chipped to oblivion cherished trees planted to commemorate births and anniversaries, or those planted by now-gone parents or spouses or brought from the family homestead in Cuba.

There were many more problems: For a time, officials distributed a brochure with the flat -- and dubious -- denial that canker eradication was being conducted to protect the citrus industry. Crews damaged fences and sprinkler heads. English-speaking homeowners couldn't understand Spanish-speaking cutting crews and vice versa. Formal notices of cutting weren't clear. Crews even confiscated fruit that had been picked and was sitting on kitchen counters.

With homeowners seething, at least 10 south Florida cities and Broward and Miami-Dade counties went to court to halt the program. And in November, Broward Circuit Court Judge J. Leonard Fleet ordered the state to stop cutting exposed, but not infected, trees.

The state is sticking to its chainsaws. It maintains that unless crews keep cutting all citrus trees, infected or not, within 1,900 feet of a diseased tree, canker will keep spreading. "While the complaints are too many for us, it's not a significant number in the big picture," says Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Craig Meyer. "The No. 1 problem is, we're out there removing trees and people don't like it."

But the balance of power has clearly shifted. Regardless what the appellate court decides, the canker eradication program has created so much suspicion among homeowners that they're almost certain to meet any future canker-fighting efforts with skepticism and opposition. "There's a real loss of trust and faith," says Andrew Meyers, the attorney for Broward County in its anti-program suit.

Worse, the ill will generated by the program could hobble a needed effort against more potent threats in the future. Tom Spreen, a UF professor of food and resource economics, questions, for example, whether the state could muster the political will to conduct aerial sprayings of malathion if faced with a medfly outbreak in an urban area. In a December meeting in Palm Beach County he attended, growers worried aloud that the public wouldn't go along. "The fruit fly thing is waiting to happen," Spreen says.

Florida, say a few scientists, should accommodate itself to canker rather than wipe out trees in the name of saving them. "Canker has never put anybody out of the citrus business anywhere in the world," Whiteside declares. Even some growers last year wondered whether the state shouldn't begin living with canker rather than trying to obliterate it -- until the state said it was close to achieving eradication.

All agree that whatever the outcome of the current war, canker will be back. The disease hides extremely well. Indeed, a 1997 outbreak in Manatee County turned out to have spread from an infected tree that escaped detection in a previous citrus eradication program five years earlier. And greater trade and greater movement of people among nations make a recurrence of canker inevitable, researchers say. ["What's Eating Florida?" October 1999]. The USDA's inspection service at Florida's seaports and airports, according to a March inspector general's report, is overwhelmed: An estimated 458,510 people troop into Florida each year carrying prohibited agricultural items.

Expect more outbreaks originating in the likes of Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale rather than LaBelle, Sebring and Bartow. "We're not ever going to be able to stop looking for citrus canker," says Meyer, the assistant agriculture commissioner.


Anti-Canker Genes
UF plant pathologist Dean Gabriel supports the state's 1,900-foot rule for eradicating citrus canker. Even so, he calls eradication a "pretty primitive business. You have to keep going at it again and again and again, and just when you think you have it licked, up it pops again." Gabriel's solution: A genetically engineered tree resistant to canker.

In December, at the International Society of Citriculture congress in Lake Buena Vista, Gabriel announced he has made progress in the lab in growing such a tree. Preliminary results are encouraging, though, he says, a "whole lot of things" remain to be evaluated. The congress's audience had a host of arcane scientific questions for Gabriel. The bottom line: He says he can have a canker-resistant grapefruit tree ready in five to six years.


Why We Have to Keep Fighting
Markets rule: If Florida wants to keep its citrus industry, a full-bore eradication strategy is the only policy the state can pursue.

By Mike Vogel

For years, Florida citrus growers have loathed Brazil. Enjoying the fruits of lax government regulation, inexpensive land and cheap labor, Brazil has increased its citrus production fivefold since the 1960s and become the world's leading citrus producer -- and the bane of Florida growers and their $1.1-billion citrus crop.

Lately, however, Florida growers have had cause to cheer their biggest competitor. After living with citrus canker on and off since 1957, parts of Brazil are changing course. The Brazilian state of S?o Paulo, which saw a dramatic rise in canker in the 1990s, has launched a major eradication effort. In the past three years, Brazil has chopped down more than 5 million citrus trees exposed to or infected by canker. "Certainly without eradication there won't be a future for any citrus-producing country," says Ademerval Garcia, president of Fundecitrus, the Brazilian growers group leading the canker fight. "Where citrus is important, there is not -- there must not be -- the option to live with canker." Besides, he adds, "Eradication is working."

Exactly our point, say the Florida growers whose state-implemented canker eradication strategy is under attack from urban homeowners upset over losing their backyard citrus trees to the canker war. Those who know the industry best say the rules of the market can't be ignored. S?o Paulo saw the light, says Nat Roberts, general manager of Callery-Judge Grove in Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County. "They turned right on their heels and started eradicating it. They discovered you can't live with it."

Destroy the trees now or canker destroys you slowly, growers learn. Citrus canker lowers yields -- the amount of fruit harvested from trees -- to the point of making groves unprofitable to operate. Case in point: It costs twice as much to grow citrus in canker-plagued China as in Florida.

More importantly, a region with canker faces quarantines from other areas. Florida's fresh grapefruits, tangerines and other citrus would be shut out of Arizona and California -- losing those markets and making shipping to Asia difficult. Spain and other citrus-producing members of the European Union -- the destination of much of Florida's $106-million grapefruit crop -- would forbid the import of Florida fresh fruit to Europe. "That would be an absolute, unmitigated disaster," says University of Florida economics Professor Tom Spreen. "Basically what you've lost is a third of the market you sell to."

Grove owners large and small stand strongly behind the state's approach to canker-fighting, and outgoing state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, who will become the next head of the industry-funded Department of Citrus. If anything, growers fault the program for not being aggressive enough -- especially in the first years after the discovery. Tim Gottwald, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher, in an intensive, 18-month study of 19,000 diseased and healthy trees, showed how virulent the canker bacterium can be. The incidence of canker went from a single-infected tree to 1,731 trees within two square miles.

No options
Approval isn't unanimous. Miami-Dade lime growers, whose groves were subject to rigid clear-cutting under the state's 1,900-foot tree removal rule, were incensed when they learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the state had granted exceptions to spare orange and grapefruit groves upstate.

But most growers see no option to the clear-cut policy. Canker came at a particularly bad time. An abundance of frozen orange juice concentrate is depressing prices. Countries such as South Africa and Israel increasingly are competitive threats.

A strong dollar works against U.S. exports -- especially of fruit, which is essentially a Third World commodity. Publicity about harmful interactions of grapefruit and some medications hasn't helped.

Grapefruit prices for growers are about a third of what they were in the early 1990s. The industry abandoned 637,500 tons on the tree in the last five seasons because of market conditions. "The citrus market is so depressed right now you can't give away grapefruit," says Henry "Skip" Clements of Stuart marketing company Clements Citrus Sales of Florida.

And now, canker. "It's like somebody sitting there with a pointed gun at your head," says Greg Carlton, vice president of Citrus Groves for Southern Gardens Groves, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar Corp. in Hendry County.

Most fearful are growers of grapefruit, the citrus type most susceptible to canker. The state's grapefruit-growing belt stretches from north Palm Beach County to Melbourne, the area known as the Indian River. "We have been very, very lucky we don't have it in the River," says Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League trade group. The southernmost grove is 4,000-acre Callery-Judge, which straddles busy Seminole-Pratt Whitney Road in the middle of The Acreage, a mass of semi-rural, one-acre home sites. "We are the canary," says Callery-Judge's Roberts.

Callery-Judge employs 450 during harvest time in its groves and in a sprawling packinghouse that sits on a rise overlooking acres of well-tended trees. Callery-Judge peddles much of its fruit with a neat marketing tactic: It sells through school and church fund-raisers in northern states. The market depends on picture-perfect fruit.

Roberts has had a few canker scares already. Inspectors found canker last year within two miles of the grove -- on citrus transplanted by homeowners moving into the area from Broward County.

If canker reaches the Callery groves, the trees would be cut and burned. The region would have to test canker-free for two years before Callery and Roberts could plant new trees. The first commercial harvest would be several years later. A quarantine would be just as big a calamity. A key Callery-Judge market is California, where it ships 70% of its tangerine crop. With a worldwide glut of fruit, Jim Callery says it would be hard to find a new market for all his tangerines if California closes its borders to him. "Let's be blunt -- I'm not sure we could survive," Callery says.

So close
Growers -- many in the business for generations -- understand the emotions of homeowners who lose prized citrus trees to the clear-cut policy. But the growers say that for them, the loss is economic as well as emotional. The 1,900-foot cutting radius works out to 260 acres -- several dozen trees in a neighborhood, but up to 29,000 trees in a grove. Canker "hasn't been kind to us either," says Andy LaVigne, executive vice president of growers' trade association Florida Citrus Mutual. Some 982,913 commercial trees have been destroyed versus 575,562 residential.

The stakes demand that eradication continue, growers say, asking that Broward Circuit Judge J. Leonard Fleet's November order banning the cutting of healthy trees be overturned. State Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Craig Meyer says that canker can be eradicated only by sticking to the 1,900-foot rule. He says the state's five weeks from finishing -- just 80,000 more trees. For the eradication effort to halt now, when it's so close, would "be a damn shame," says Callery.

George Hamner Jr., the third generation of a citrus grower family, remembers stories his grandfather told of groves cut down and set ablaze early in the last century to wipe out canker. "It's one of those fears that's instilled in you generation to generation," says Hamner, who owns grower Indian River Exchange Packers and is president of industry trade association Florida Citrus Mutual for the 2000-01 season. "If it gets in your grove, cut it, kill it and burn it."

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