Mani Skaria, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO, US Citrus, LLC
Professor & Citrus Scientist, Retired, Texas A&M University-Kingsville
August 13, 2018
This thought process is the result of a conference call I had a week ago with a banker in Atlanta, Georgia (specializing in agriculture) and our CFO at the U.S. Citrus, (www.uscitrus.com) company in Hargill, Texas.
We were talking citrus economics, the current situations in the state of Florida with HLB (=greening disease), how the very first HLB-infected orchard in Texas today, and the disease situations in the state of California.
The public, via the news media efforts, thinks that the Florida citrus industry is doomed. Would it be possible to revive the Florida citrus industry?
The above-mentioned banker with his diverse contacts in Florida and the author with his first-hand information on HLB in this country and elsewhere agree that perhaps there is hope with some special effort. My CFO who had spent over half-a-decade with me and personally experienced what U.S. Citrus is doing in Texas is equally convinced that there is hope for the Florida Citrus industry to revive.
And very likely, there will be a Texas connection.
I have learned that we can get a lot of guidance from digging into the history of events and circumstances that shaped us. That's true with the citrus industry in this country.
The state of Florida was hit with HLB in August 2005. Between 2005 and 2017, over $250 million was distributed among scientists to find a solution to the HLB problem. As of today, we have a ton of scientific reports with no practical solutions to guide the citrus growers.
According to NIFA, USDA, about 75% of the Florida citrus industry is gone.
What's going on with HLB in this country?
I recently visited some agricultural farms in a small country called, Israel. The arable land there is very limited; they do not have enough good water to grow products, and the country is surrounded by enemies. This was my third trip to this country. I wonder, knowing what I know about this country, how they would have dealt with an HLB situation? I am sure, many of my esteemed citrus scientist friends, worldwide would most likely to agree with my hypothesis that the Israeli scientists would have identified practical solutions within 18-24 months and for a 10th of the cost spent in the United States. The difference would have been that there would be a concerted effort equally among some problem-solving scientists, technology transfer experts, and the grower community. Together, they would have been working towards the solution, not for publication in peer-reviewed journals. The number one priority would have been towards bringing a practical solution to the grower community. And they would eventually publish scientific data in reputed journals. They have proved that their system works in both applied and basic sciences. The agriculture product exports are the testimony.
Whereas, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2018 after reviewing the HLB research pointed out several reasons for the shortcomings and suggested directives for researchers towards a systems approach for finding the solution to HLB in this country. A simple translation of the report can be summarized; there is enough publication on HLB and its vector for a long time.
Some of the top scientists in Florida have been working on rootstocks and genetic modifications for a solution. A Texas scientist had worked on a spinach gene with some promises. And a leading Florida agriculture company had purchased the rights from Texas A&M University to bring field resistance to HLB using the spinach gene.
We cannot blame the scientists. They are under the mandate to publish or perish.
The multi-million dollar available on HLB research is a business opportunity to run the laboratory, play the university bean counting game, get tenure and promotions. The university administration must give selected scientists 3-4-year release time to help growers. The scientists should be evaluated based on impact brought to the grower community, knowing that the results may or may not be publishable in a top peer-reviewed journal.
The right citrus plant doctor (scientist) for a grower.
It is just like medical doctors that fall into two categories: primary care and specialists. Primary Care doctors are trained to be a patient’s first point of entry into the health care system with an ability to diagnose a wide variety of medical conditions. They are experts to track your health, and they can help you see a specialist. Whereas specialists have advanced training and degrees in a branch of expertise. They know a lot about one specific subject, whereas a primary care doctor knows about many issues but not on the level of a specialist.
Citrus growers are better served well by general practitioners.
Unfortunately, the predominant scientists in Florida function the specialist role.
Why is America not quite ready for a genetically modified plant for a solution to HLB?
There is no clear candidate for a genetic solution yet; however, the spinach gene is a possibility. The economic reasons are stronger than scientific or sentimental reasons. For example, the spinach gene comes from an edible plant; there is no animal or foreign gene, evidently and scientifically safe. Sentimental reasons would take some time; perhaps it will take two generations of effort for people to understand that a certain level of genetic modification is acceptable.
There is a third reason that the author can explain.
The author is a citrus scientist, entrepreneur, and a significant producer of Persian lime in this country through the company that he founded, US Citrus, LLC. that specializes in the production of Persian limes grown in Texas. He is a co-author of a publication on the first genetically-modified grapefruit. He has no problem eating fruit from genetically modified citrus. However, he will not plant genetically modified citrus in his property because of economic reasons. Citrus is a perennial crop with a high front-end cost. The cost and profit are recovered from sales over an extended period. A report on GMO by a writer in Canada can overthrow the marketing and eventually the survival of his company – it is pure business economics.
A citrus grower in Florida claims he needs HLB to be profitable.
A well-known citrus grower in Florida with a degree in chemistry and chemical sales background reportedly doing well after HLB infections. Further, he claims that HLB infections made his orchards more profitable. The reason - he started paying more attention to tree health after HLB was found in his groves. His definition of tree health covers both root system and shoot system. He exercised his degree in chemistry and his access to chemicals to blend and treated with his amalgam. It brought results - more money to his citrus bank account. His excitement and business aspirations perhaps clashed with the scientists who could not deliver such practical results. The typical reactions saying, the results are not science-based, and the synthetic blend is pseudo-science, not published, etc. But the grower, his fruit packer, and his banker had opinions contradicting the scientists.
And Texas grower echoes, you need HLB to be profitable.
The first reported HLB infection in Texas was in San Juan, Texas, Friday the 13th, January 2012. Like the Florida grower, the Texas grower also started to pay more attention to his tree health after HLB was found in his orchard in January 2012. Many scientists (except the author) predicted gloom and doom for his family business. The author, with his bedside manner communicated with the grower to ignore public comments and concentrate on tree health and psyllid management. In 2015, the author received a thank you note e-mail acknowledging and appreciating the position that the author took. The Orchard continues to be one of the best in the County. The author has received numerous Florida scientists between 2015-18 to see his micro-budded, higher-density citrus operations in Hargill. Many visitors have seen the first HLB-infected Texas orchard. It is a situation that many Florida growers can’t comprehend.
It is becoming evident that it is not the might of the bacterium and the enemy the psyllid vector that is destroying the citrus industry. India and China area is the A combination of factors is involved. First and foremost are:
1) The players in the citrus field created damage that growers remember
2) the Florida climate that is conducive for the vector
3) hurricanes that spread the vector and the bacterium long-distance, multiple times
4) a landscape plant called Asian jasmine which is host to both the HLB bacterium and the vector
5) a significant amount of money available for research
6) rivalry or better a lack of cooperation among the scientists and between the scientists and growers
7) a preponderance of citrus scientists in the specialist category compared to general practitioners
8) several Ph.D.'s failed to see gems in orchards and smart growers and ignoring their practical observations
9) a growing tendency to bring agricultural solutions in the comfort of laboratories vs. hot and humid farms
10) Copper contaminated Florida soil is toxic to feeder roots and thereby limiting root performance -root health is essential for HLB tolerance
11) The after effects of the horrible 9/11 tragedy. It needs an explanation, given below and finally,
12) the HLB bacterium and its vector, the Asian citrus psyllid.
Could HLB be used for Bioterrorism purposes against United States Agriculture?
This was a critical national security question at that time right after HLB as found in 2005. HLB bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus and Candidatus L. africanus were select agents. With Florida scientists under regulatory challenges and limitations on working with the microbes listed as a select agent under the Homeland Security of the United States there were limitations on research in the early critical years. It took the Florida citrus industry 36 months before the federal government could deselect HLB from the select agent list. The damage from wasted time was done already.
Why Florida’s survival via Texas?
There are four specific reasons.
1) When a citrus giant in Florida was searching for GMO products for survival, they reached out to Weslaco, Texas. The US Sugar company https://www.ussugar.com/ reached out to the TAMU AgriLife scientist in Weslaco, Texas.
2) The first HLB-infected commercial orchard in Texas even after six years is one of the best-producing citrus farms in the Hidalgo County. Are there lessons to learn from Texas?
3) A Texas A&M University -Kingsville Scientist, has mimicked HLB-like symptoms with excess copper applications. Florida citrus orchards are known for copper contamination. His demonstration block is accessible to anyone in this country, and it is in Weslaco, Texas.
4) A retired citrus scientist from Texas A&M University-Kingsville is pioneering with an all-natural production practice called, micro-budded, higher-density planting for profitability. This entails getting to commercial fruit production quicker and higher offsetting negative economic impact that HLB might cause. This is a living testimony in a rural Texas called Hargill.
Among the citrus-producing states, Texas is below Florida and California.
But the four statements as mentioned above are the pillars that would build a profitable citrus industry in this country.
Texas state Senator, Juan “Chuy: Hinojosa visited U.S. Citrus orchards and nursery operations in Hargill, June 1, 2018. We appreciate his visit and time spent with us. It was a Show & Tell of the New Outlook for citrus production at our facilities and an opportunity for our young workers to meet and greet a state senator. And personally, the author was able to give first-hand information and submit to him the need and reasons to Re-think, Re-evaluate, and Re-organize greening research focus in this country to bring real impact on disease control and relief to growers. Senator Hinojosa personally experienced several strategies that we have introduced -higher density planting and “baby trees” (micro-budded) that produced fruit quicker.
There are ten specific facts and three historical lessons – all emphasize an urgent need for a new direction to bring immediate and practical solutions to citrus growers.
1) It is now 13-years since the federal government agencies, the Florida state government and the Florida citrus industry started to fight this disease.
2) Thus far, multi-million dollars spent on research and development.
3) Dozens of smart scientists dedicated their time and efforts to the disease and its psyllid vector, but to date, no solutions have been found to ensure sustainable production and comfort citrus growers in Florida. A lot of scientific information on the pathogen and the vector are known. However, there is no application for the economic viability of the citrus growers. At this rate, there will not be growers left in Florida.
4) According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA (2017) there is 75% decline in the citrus industry in Florida.
5) The time, money and effort spent since 2005 generated substantial knowledge on the disease but no breakthrough in HLB disease management. In a 184-page report by the National Academy of Sciences (2018), an expert review emphasizes the need to focus on five critical areas for developing a viable solution to HLB.
6) An immediate breakthrough in HLB disease management is essential for the answer to HLB and to save the citrus industry in Florida and elsewhere in this country.
7) The majority of HLB research is conducted at various universities and research institutions where the researchers are evaluated annually mainly on publications in peer-reviewed journals.
8) Because of the above situation(s), the current approach to HLB management research needs to be re-evaluated. Emphasis should be given to field-oriented, practical applications that bring economic sense to citrus growers.
9). Mission-oriented research and grower participatory demonstration projects should be completed with the emphasis on overall plant health (including the root system); seasonal and multi-pest control strategies; and involvement of general practitioners vs. specialists.
10). Perhaps, the university administration may release time to select scientists and relieving three years from annually expected evaluation metrics - a gesture to the grower community.
I believe re-aligning citrus research towards a systems approach for a practical and sustainable solution will offer the citrus industry the best way out of the current impasse. My belief and focus are based on 34-years of university experience with citrus teaching, research, extension; and including 18-years as a citrus grower, 10-years as citrus nurseryman; and all the years handling multi-pest citrus problems.
HISTORY LESSONS: I encourage the research community, stakeholders, and the funding agencies to learn from the way we all handled three citrus issues:
- i) How we handled an over 100-year-old citrus blight disease
- ii) How we handled citrus canker eradication
- iii) How we handled HLB in Florida 2005-2008.