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UF receives $6.7 million in federal funds to fight citrus greening

Small citrus trees infected with citrus greening. Asian citrus psyllid, liberibacter asiaticum, greening, citrus disease, entomology. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences received $6.7 million in funding as part of a $20.1 million grant for research on citrus greening, a disease devastating Florida’s citrus industry.

The United States Department of Agriculture awarded the grants to universities for research and Extension projects to help citrus producers fight citrus greening, also known as huanglongbing or HLB. This funding is available through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative’s Citrus Disease Research and Extension Program, which was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill and is administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Citrus greening has affected more than 75 percent of Florida citrus crops and threatens production all across the United States,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The research and extension projects funded today bring us one step closer to providing growers real tools to fight this disease, from early detection to creating long-term solutions for the industry, producers and workers.”

The SCRI program addresses critical needs of the specialty crop industry by awarding grants to support research and extension activities that address key challenges of national, regional and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of food and agriculture, including conventional and organic food production systems.

“This funding is vital to expediting research in our search for a treatment for greening, which is threatening to destroy Florida’s $10.7 billion citrus industry,” said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.  “We have a small army of researchers working day and night to save this industry, and our partnership with the federal government is aiding in this tremendous effort.”

The citrus greening bacterium first enters a citrus tree via the tiny Asian citrus psyllid.  When introduced into the plant by leaf feeding, the bacteria then move through the tree via the phloem – the veins of the tree. The disease starves the tree of nutrients, damages its roots and the tree produces fruits that are small, and misshapen, and have reduced quality, making it unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or, for the most part, juice. Most infected trees eventually become non-productive and the disease has already affected millions of citrus trees in North America.

Citrus greening was first detected in Florida in 2005. Florida has lost approximately $7.8 billion in revenue, 162,200 citrus acres and 7,513 jobs since 2007, according to researchers with UF/IFAS.

Although current methods to control the spread of citrus greening are limited to aggressive psyllid control and the removal and destruction of infected trees, UF/IFAS researchers are working to defeat it on a number of fronts, including trying to suppress the psyllid, breeding citrus rootstock that shows better greening tolerance and testing chemical treatments that could be used on trees.

Greening has also been detected in Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas and several residential trees in California. It has also been detected in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 14 states in Mexico. A total of 15 U.S. states or territories are under full or partial quarantine due to the detected presence of the Asian citrus psyllid. Those states include Alabama, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This year’s grants include:

  • University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., $2,800,000
  • University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., $3,999,508

The $3.999 million grant for the University of Florida, which was announced last month, will focus on growing the bacterium in laboratories. It is something scientists have not been able to do thus far and is hampering research efforts. Another project at the University of Florida will be overseen by Kirsten Pelz-Stelinski and a team at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, along with colleagues from USDA and Yale University. They are working on “microbial inhibition” to manage the disease.

All of the projects funded this year meet the priorities recommended by the Citrus Disease Subcommittee, which is mandated by the Farm Bill to provide an annual consultation with NIFA to recommend priorities, an agenda, and annual budget for the CDRE. The Citrus Disease Subcommittee is part of the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board and will meet on February 17-18, 2016, in Riverside, Calif. to discuss and recommend the priorities for the 2016 CDRE awards.

By        Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, 352-294-3302, k.moore.wilmoth@ufl.edu

Amanda Hils, 202-720-3359

Sources:  Jack Payne, 352-392-1971, jackpayne@ufl.edu

Photo Caption: Small citrus trees infected with citrus greening. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

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