Although the disease, citrus greening, was first spotted in Florida in 2005, this year’s losses from it are by far the most extensive. While the bacteria, which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe, affects all citrus fruits, it has been most devastating to oranges, the largest crop. So many have been affected that the United States Department of Agriculture has downgraded its crop estimates five months in a row, an extraordinary move, analysts said.
With the harvest not yet over, orange production has already decreased 10 percent from the initial estimate, a major swing, they said. “The long and short of it is that the industry that made Florida, that is synonymous with Florida, that is a staple on every American breakfast table, is totally threatened,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who helped obtain $11 million in federal money for research to fight the disease. “If we don’t find a cure, it will eliminate the citrus industry.”
The relentless migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida — and beyond — has deepened concerns this year among orange juice processors, investors, growers and lawmakers. Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil, and the state’s $9 billion citrus industry is a major economic force, contributing 76,000 jobs. The industry, lashed over the years by canker disease, hard freezes and multiple hurricanes, is no stranger to hardship. But citrus greening is by far the most worrisome.
The disease, which can lie dormant for two to five years, is spread by an insect no larger than the head of a pin, the Asian citrus psyllid. It snacks on citrus trees, depositing bacteria that gradually starves trees of nutrients. Psyllids fly from tree to tree, leaving a trail of infection. Concerted efforts by growers and millions of dollars spent on research to fight the disease have so far failed, growers and scientists said. The situation was worsened this season by an unusual weather pattern, including a dry winter, growers said. “We have got a real big problem,” said Vic Story, a lifelong citrus grower and the head of The Story Companies, which owns 2,000 acres of groves in Central Florida and manages an additional 3,000 acres, all of which are affected at varying levels. “It’s definitely the biggest threat in my lifetime, and I’m 68. This is a tree killer.”