Florida looks overseas in bacteria battle

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.

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.

Similar agricultural pests from the third world can be found in every part of the US. Last year, the corn cyst nematode, previously found only in India, Pakistan, and Egypt, showed up in the US for the first time. The nematode eats the roots of several major food crops.

This year the USDA quarantined part of California to prevent the spread of Africanized honeybees, the so-called ``killer bees,'' from Brazil.

Although the third world is not the only source of these problems, these poor developing nations pose special hazards.

Americans have learned to live with many European plant diseases introduced by immigrants before USDA quarantine laws were put in place at the beginning of the century, said Dr. Stephen Poe, a USDA plant pathologist working on the Florida problem.

Today, he said, ``Third-world immigrants -- and increased trade with the third world -- bring in new diseases.''

The USDA helps developing countries try to eradicate pests and diseases before they leave their borders, but this often proves difficult.

American consumers are particular about the appearance of fruit and vegetables and are usually reluctant to take those with blemishes from grocery bins. Third-world consumers are not so finicky, and growers in those countries are therefore not quick to notice marks that might signal disease.

Governments in the developing world don't have the money or infrastructure to fight agricultural diseases in any case, says Dr. Poe, who has worked on the Mexican citrus problem. Third-world government officials often concede that they cannot undertake control programs, because the economic disruption would cause unwanted political protests, he said.

``Agriculture systems in the third world are not buffered the way we are,'' said Poe, noting that USDA and the Florida government are partly reimbursing citrus growers, most of whom have sufficient capital to withstand setbacks.

But government costs have already reached $28 million, says Gordon Johnson, deputy director of the 850-member joint USDA-Florida agriculture department staff working on the problem. He figures the program will run for three more years.

The job is particularly challenging because the goal is to wipe out citrus canker, not simply control it.

Measures include a prohibition on all interstate shipments of citrus plants and on sales of fruit to citrus-growing states. Packers must observe strict procedures to disinfect fruit before shipment to noncitrus-growing states.

The USDA and Florida reimbursement program for nurseries and growers has not offset their losses. Franklyn Ward, whose nursery was the first hit, estimates he has lost about $400,000.

Estimates of total losses to the Florida citrus industry are difficult, ``because we don't know all the implications yet,'' says Ernie Neff of Florida Citrus Mutual, an association representing growers.

One study, he says, conservatively estimates that it costs growers, packers, and processors at least $14 million a year to comply with new sanitary regulations. Ultimately, all or part of those costs will be passed along to American consumers as higher prices for fresh citrus.

In addition, the citrus problem has created a scarcity of new trees. This comes at a time when growers need to replace one-quarter of their groves because of killing freezes during four of the last five years.

The loss of production will cost millions, according to Mr. Neff.

Government rules forbid a nursery from resuming operation for one year after disease is discovered. Mr. Ward, whose father helped pioneer the citrus industry in Florida, worries that growers will be wary of buying from him after he starts his operation again.

``People will say, `I like the guy, but I have to think of myself,' and go elsewhere,'' Ward says.

USDA officials say it is likely they will find the citrus problem at other nurseries and groves. If they succeed in eradicating it, however, it won't be the first time. The same problem occurred in 1914 in Florida and spread to other citrus states before it was eradicated in 1933. An estimated 20 million trees were destroyed.

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