Don boxing gloves for California citrus vs. HLB fight

Most everyone in the Western citrus industry has known the day would eventually arrive when Huanglongbing (HLB) disease would be found in California. Everyone wished it would be later or better yet never at all. The day has has arrived.

An e-mail from the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced the arrival of the world’s most feared and deadly citrus disease in the Golden State. The HLB find on March 22 was in a residential area known as Hacienda Heights in southeastern Los Angeles County — just miles from the Orange County line.

No welcome wagons circled the find site and no one-way airplane tickets were doled out to the disease. HLB was found in pummelo tree tissue and in an Asian citrus psyllid found in a CDFA sticky trap on the tree.

HLB is a citrus-tree killer. Several years after infection every tree succumbs. The problem is tree symptoms don’t show up for a year or more after the initial infection. HLB can live and thrive in a tree and no one knows it.

The disease causes sour-tasting, odd-shaped fruit, and reduces fruit yield. There is no cure for the disease.

HLB was first found in the U.S. in Florida in 2005 and since has decimated the state’s citrus industry — trees pulled from infested orchards amid expensive insecticide costs. Florida citrus leaders have openly shared what they’ve done right and wrong in the fight. HLB was found in Texas this January and their leaders have shared the same. California agriculture thanks them!

The future as cast by a crystal ball is pretty fuzzy on how HLB will impact California — from residential areas with prized citrus trees to commercial citrus production which adds almost $2 billion to the state’s economy. No one knows how severe the disease will spread — if at all. For now, the worst fear over HLB is perhaps not the disease — it’s fear itself.

The California citrus industry has a fighting chance against HLB. Leaders have travelled the globe to learn what has worked and not worked in bouts versus HLB. California citrus organizations and the University of California-Davis have informed commercial citrus producers how to develop effective anti-HLB strategies in orchards.

The good news is California’s first HLB case is in a residential area. The question remains — is it a single find? The bad news is the find site is 14 miles from a commercial grove in northern Orange County.

Many in the citrus industry concur that research is the long-term answer, yet solutions could take decades to find and implement. Ted Batkin of the research-based California Citrus Research Board believes the industry could be 30 years away from developing HLB-resistant or tolerant citrus tree varieties.

In January, the U.S. citrus industry applied for a $10 million, five-year USDA research grant for genetic and genome research to seek solutions to HLB and its vectors — the Asian citrus psyllid and budwood. Scientists from HLB-infected citrus areas worldwide would bring the best ideas together to search for solutions.

A decision from USDA on funding the project is expected in May or June. It’s a no-brainer; USDA should fund the proposal to help save the commercial citrus industry.

In the meantime, roll up the sleeves and put up the dukes. The California citrus industry could face the fight of its life. 

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