Florida looks overseas in bacteria battle
Winter Haven, Fla.
With this article, the Monitor begins a monthly series tracing economic connections between the United States and the developing world. The author directs a project under the auspices of the Society of Professional Journalists to help improve news coverage of the developing world. In September, Bill Adams's 60-acre citrus nursery, the largest in the state, became a wasteland of sandy soil punctuated by small piles of burning brush.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Adams's nursery is one of many battle fronts where the Florida and federal governments are fighting mysterious bacteria most experts believe originated in the third world.
To control the bacteria -- known as citrus canker and not harmful to humans -- officials have ordered on-site burning of affected nurseries, even if only a few problem trees are found. The battle also involves efforts to find the bacteria's geographic origin to establish an effective quarantine and, perhaps, support eradication efforts abroad.
So far the problem has been confined mostly to nurseries, not functioning citrus groves, and there is no evidence that it has spread beyond Florida. But scientists have been unable to identify the variety of bacteria that has been threatening the state's $2.5 billion-a-year citrus industry since last fall.
Since the first sighting in August 1984, 13 Florida nurseries containing more than 13 million trees have gone up in smoke. In recent days, officials have found evidence of the malady in two additional nurseries -- the most recent confirmed on Saturday -- and in two groves not yet in production, where destruction will not be as extensive but will still be costly to growers.
Working together, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services must also find and destroy about 1.5 million trees sold by the affected nurseries to groves, retail outlets, and other nurseries.
Meanwhile, a constant cycle of inspections -- including examination of some 3 million trees at private residences -- continues in hopes of locating other infections before they spread. The disease produces corky brown blemishes on oranges and grapefruit, making them susceptible to rotting and unmarketable as fresh produce; it can also defoliate and kill trees.
Crucial to the fight is determining how the bacteria arrived in Florida. ``We need a good detective,'' says Charles O. Youtsey, who directs a state-operated arboretum. By process of elimination, USDA officials trace the ``Florida strain'' of citrus canker, as the new variety is called, to somewhere in the developing world, most likely East Asia, where citrus trees originated. Throughout Latin America, different strains afflict citrus.
The bacteria might have entered the US by a nursery worker visiting an infected farm in a developing country and bringing the bacteria home on his tools. It might also have come from fruit or seed materials imported or smuggled into the United States.
Although USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) tries to keep contaminated materials out of the country, it is difficult to spot travelers bringing in small items, such as citrus leaves used to make tea.
Indeed, on Friday, USDA officials confirmed a second type of citrus canker, one commonly found in Asia, on a lime tree grown by the owner of an Oriental restaurant. Danger of this new strain spreading, however, was believed minimal, since the find was 40 miles north of Florida's main growing areas.
The mystery of where the Florida strain originated is especially perplexing because the problem was first discovered in a nursery owned by Franklyn Ward, regarded as one of the most careful men in the Florida citrus business.
Citrus canker is only one of several Florida agricultural problems originating in the developing world. Fruit flies, probably from Latin America, have come in three times in this decade. The red wax scale insect from the Caribbean has infested foliage nurseries near here. In the 1960s, APHIS eradicated the giant African snail from the state.