Florida lawmakers secure additional farm bill funds to combat citrus disease


McClatchy Washington Bureau

A provision in the recently negotiated farm bill is designed to tackle the scourge of citrus greening, a bacterial disease that is devastating to crops in Florida and several other states.

Included in the legislation’s conference report is $125 million spread over five years that will be guaranteed to go to citrus disease research. An additional $125 million over five years in discretionary citrus funding was also included in the bill, although that money still will need to be approved during the appropriations process each year.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., pushed for the funding. It comes after an additional $20 million was put into the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress earlier this month.

The farm bill, a massive piece of legislation that is customarily revamped and passed every five years to lay out the structure of agriculture spending, is nearly complete. The bill was approved Monday by a bipartisan conference committee of members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and Nelson’s office said that final congressional passage was fairly certain. It is on track for a vote in the House on Wednesday and in the Senate as early as the end of this week.

The money is designed to help researchers and the citrus industry combat the disease, which has had a major impact on Florida and also spread into California, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina.

“We’re starting to see the real impact of the disease,” said Prakash K. Hebbar, national coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s citrus health response program. In previous years, the industry has seen a reduction in yield and a reduction in the quality of its fruit.

“It really is devastating to the individual producers,” said Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, who recently toured damaged citrus areas in Florida.

According to the Department of Agriculture, citrus greening – formally known as Huanglongbing, or HLB – cost Florida more than $4.5 billion in lost citrus production and more than 8,200 lost jobs from the 2006-07 to 2010-11 production seasons. It was first detected in Florida in 2005 and has now affected the “vast majority” of Florida’s citrus-producing areas, the department said.

The bacterial disease isn’t a risk to humans or animals, but it moves from infected to healthy plants, eventually causing the trees to produce green, misshapen and bitter-tasting fruit. It’s spread by a gnat-sized insect: the Asian citrus psyllid. There is no known cure, and the only effective control once a tree is infected is to remove the tree.

Nelson, in a statement, said the new money will help fund research into combating and eradicating the disease.

“This means people will still have orange juice to drink,” he said in a statement.

Buchanan added in a statement: “Citrus greening threatens not only the existence of Florida citrus farmers and producers, but the entire U.S. citrus industry. Finding a cure for this destructive disease is vital to maintaining a strong economy and protecting jobs right here in Southwest Florida. This measure represents a crucial step forward by securing a sustainable funding source necessary to combat this pervasive disease.”

Hebbar said the Agriculture Department has not designated a specific program or strategy to deploy the new citrus-greening money, but he said officials will be meeting shortly to discuss spending plans.

Email: cadams@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @CAdamsMcClatchy

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