Citrus Community Changing Trajectory On Pests And Diseases

This Q&A is the first installment of six featuring the 2014 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner Mike Sparks, executive vice president/CEO of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual. 

Photo by Frank Giles
Photo by Frank Giles

Q: How is the citrus industry shifting its response toward invasive pests?

A: With citrus greening, I think we are looking at the second coming of invasive pests and diseases. If you go back to canker, we thought it was devastating and our most serious challenge yet. It brings me back to all of the programs Florida Citrus Mutual participated in trying to help growers to get payment for those thousands of acres lost to eradication.
Then, here comes greening and takes it to the next level. I’ve often said, if canker is the common cold, then greening is cancer. It put us on a warp-speed research track and made us realize our future basically rests on how well we are able to manage imported pests and diseases. There are other destructive diseases out there that haven’t hit Florida. So regulators and the industry must continue to be diligent with interdiction efforts.
That is why dedicated, significant, and long-term research funding like we secured in the Farm Bill is so important to our future. Research dollars are now available for any citrus pest and disease research. I am confident we are going to whip this greening challenge, but what about the next pest or disease that comes along? Right now it is greening that has occupied our attention, but there’s plenty of current and future production challenges we can’t afford to forget.
The Florida citrus grower has a natural instinct of not looking for help or a handout. But, it is not their fault greening has shown up in their groves, because it came in from beyond our borders. So, this is truly a situation where federal assistance is warranted and necessary.

Q: How do think the public would react to a genetically modified citrus tree resistant to greening?

A: We definitely need to keep a genetically modified (GM) tree in the research toolbox. But first we have to develop one and then we need to get regulatory approval. So it is a long process. We certainly need to keep pursuing it. But I’m more interested in therapies such as heat treatment or antimicrobials that can save trees in the ground right now. Growers realize GM technology is a valuable option we need to keep. As far as the public goes, yes there would have to be an education process. There is a lot of misinformation out there right now. Did you know there is not one published research paper that links GMOs to health issues? Not one. But that is the misinformed public perception. So it would be difficult — but not impossible — to get the facts out should a GM citrus tree become reality. After all, there are other GM foods in the marketplace. The good news is we as an industry have time.

Special thanks to Chemtura AgroSolutions for sponsoring the Citrus Achievement Award.

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