Growers fight against latest threat to citrus industry

Citrus Greening poses biggest challenge since Citrus Canker

SOUTH FLORIDA – A bacterial disease -- spread by insects -- has been invading orange groves all across Florida for the past eight years.

Citrus Canker wiped out 16.5 million trees since it emerged in Florida in 1995.  Disease, along with periodic freezes, have growers always concerned about orange production.  Now, juice producers are facing the biggest assault yet: Citrus Greening. 

It's a problem that could wipe out one on Florida's biggest industries in just a few years.  Growers have no choice but to be proactive in the fight of their livelihood.

Ricke Kress doesn't use tea leaves to predict the future, he's looking at orange trees in Clewiston, and is shocked by what he's seeing. 

"We've seen 3- and 4-year-old trees almost die right in front of our eyes," Kress said. "We have identified over 700,000 infected trees."

In Davie, Bob Roth, who has been selling citrus for almost 50 years, feels the squeeze. 

"We lost about 20 to 30 percent of our crop last year and if that continues, it could wipe out the entire industry," he said.

It's a $9 billion industry that employs 76,000 people here in Florida, an industry that depends on taste and pleasing appearance.  Citrus Greening is fatal to both. 

"It ruins the fruit. The fruit comes out with a green texture, deformed," Roth said. "It doesn't mature, a sour fruit.  You can't use it at all.

Kress and Southern Gardens Citrus is facing the blight head on.  Planting new trees near stumps of diseased trees.  The company is also spending $5 million on research into "transgenic" trees. 

"They felt the ultimate solution was going to be some form of genetic modification," said Kress. 

Scientists are grafting a spinach gene that attacks the invading bacteria into healthy trees.  So far, they are seeing disease resistance in controlled settings and will soon be ready for field testing.  Kress and other growers realize it's a complicated process.  \

"We have to solve the problem. We have to get it approved. We have to be able to grow it, but ultimately, we have to make sure we have consumer acceptance.  And if there's not consumer acceptance then the first three steps don't matter," Kress said.

Kress realizes part of that consumer acceptance may be based on the use of G.M.O.'s or Genetically Modified Organisms like the spinach gene, which is a concern within the citrus industry and with consumer groups.  He says they will cross that bridge when they have orange juice from those transgenic trees.

His company, Southern Gardens Citrus, estimates they may have to spend up to $20 million over the next 10 years to find a solution, but he says the citrus industry hangs in the balance.