By Nicole “Nikki” Fried
Florida is facing an ongoing crisis that threatens jobs, our economy, and possibly our state’s identity. Depending on your political affiliation, a whole range of threats may come to mind, however, this problem is not concerned with political parties and its consequences will reverberate across partisan lines. I am speaking of the decades long battle to sustain Florida’s citrus industry.
Huanglongbing (HLB), commonly referred to as citrus greening, is a bacterial disease that damages the roots of citrus trees and has ravaged our second-largest industry since it was first reported in 2005. Spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, the disease attacks the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients, eventually leading to its death. To quantify the destruction from citrus greening, during peak citrus production in 1998 the state produced 244 million boxes of citrus. The most recent USDA forecast projects just 41 million boxes for the 2021 season. While the numbers paint a grim picture, when citrus greening first began devastating our trees 15 years ago, many questioned whether Florida’s citrus industry would survive another decade. But our growers are still producing our state’s signature crop today.
Florida’s history with citrus dates back to 1493 when the fruit was carried aboard the ships of Christopher Columbus, however, citrus as the industry we know today did not develop until the 1870s. The advancements of new technology in processing and transportation, combined with Florida’s climate, turned our state into the epicenter of U.S. citrus production. The value of the citrus industry to Florida’s economy cannot be understated, as it still accounts for $6.7 billion in economic impact while employing more than 33,000 Floridians.
While the loss of almost half of Florida’s citrus groves over the past two decades is primarily due to the devastation caused by citrus greening, other diseases and climate change have made matters worse. Citrus canker, another bacterial disease, leads to reduced citrus yields and marks fruit with unsightly legions. Considered eradicated in 1933, the bacteria was again found in South Florida citrus in 1995 and continues to affect citrus across the southeast.
Rising temperatures due to climate change have only exacerbated existing threats to the industry. Warmer temperatures are leading to more severe weather events, such as hurricanes, that can devastate citrus crops like we unfortunately saw with Irma in 2017. Unfortunately, the “wounds” fruit acquire from severe weather are a primary method for citrus canker infection. Adding insult to injury, a study by the University of Florida found rising temperatures will also allow the psyllid that spreads citrus greening to flourish. When you add unfair foreign trade practices to these ongoing threats of disease and extreme weather, the fact that Florida is still the second-largest producer of citrus in the world speaks to the perseverance of the growers, packers, processors, industry and our state in overcoming challenges to keep Florida citrus growing.
The tenacity of the industry comes from the dedication of our producers and a commitment from state leaders to invest in industry saving research. As Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture, I am proud of our department’s strong advocacy on behalf of our citrus industry, most recently securing $18.5 million in the 2021-22 state budget to support Florida citrus production, health, and research. Additionally, I helped establish a state direct-support organization to manage the Citrus Research and Field Trials (CRAFT) program, responsible for planting 5,000 new acres of citrus groves using experimental techniques. Finally, I am proud to have been a voice for Florida citrus at the federal level, fighting against the Trump Administration’s decision to allow Chinese citrus imports as well as the USDA’s more recent actions removing standards on imported grapefruit, both of which pose risks to the domestic industry.
Florida citrus is world renowned and is as much a part of the state’s identity as it is our economy – it’s the icon on our license plates after all. Through all of the challenges, more than 90% of America’s orange juice is still made from Florida-grown oranges, and I can confidently say that nothing tastes better than Fresh From Florida citrus products.
There is also hope the newly discovered Donaldson tree, an HLB-infected tree that is thriving in spite of the disease, will unlock the secret to producing stronger, more resilient trees in the future. Still, the industry is facing difficult times, and it will require the support of producers, state and federal leaders, and Florida citizens to guarantee its existence for future generations. The easiest and simplest way to reach this goal? Start each day with a delicious glass of Florida orange juice!