Asian Insect Threatens Florida's Citrus Industry

05 September, 2014

Florida's citrus industry is facing serious threats from an Asian insect. The insect can be a carrier of bacteria that attack citrus trees. The spread of the bacteria shows the danger of bringing non-native organisms to American soil.

Florida's citrus growers are world famous for their production of oranges, lemons, limes and other citrus fruit. But now they are burning orange trees damaged by a brown insect called psyllid. The insect comes from Asia and carries what the Chinese call the "yellow dragon disease".

Bacteria from the insects block the capillary system inside the trees. Slowly, the trees choke to death. The fruit from the diseased trees is small. It falls off the tree, and the tree eventually dies.

Asian Insect Threatens Florida's Citrus Industry
In this July 31, 2014 photo, Fred Gmitter holds root stock of a citrus tree at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, in Lake Alfred, Florida. Gmitter studied an invasive bug, the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which carries bacteria that attack citrus trees. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

No citrus-growing countries have developed a cure. Farmer Ellis Hunt is very worried. In his words, "when you spend the money to raise it, and get it almost there, and it turns loose and hits the ground, that's ...a disaster. That's heartbreaking".

Florida's $9-billion citrus growing industry is second only to Brazil. It is fighting foreign competition and a drop in sales in the United States. Sales are decreasing because Americans are avoiding sugar and carbohydrates for health reasons. The citrus industry's 75,000 jobs depend on finding a cure to the disease.

Scientists are working to save the existing trees. They include some of the world's best botanists, or plant experts, and entomologists – scientists specializing in insects. These scientists are also trying to grow new trees that can resist the bacterium and make it impossible for insects to transport the disease.

Entomologist Kirsten Pelz-Stelinski said the problem is keeping her awake at night. She said, "It's something I think about every day. I think about it at night when I'm supposed to be sleeping. It's a huge problem, and we need to come up with as many as tools as we can".

Ms. Pelz-Stelinski said it may take as long as five years to find a way to make the psyllid bug free of the dangerous bacteria.

For now, botanists are experimenting with grafting to keep the existing trees alive. Grafting is a technique that connects a part of one tree to another tree; the two parts grow together to become a single tree. Citrus farmers are also working to control the disease by spraying the trees and feeding them with nutrients.

This story is based on a report by George Putic, adapted for Learning English by Adam Brock and edited by George Grow. James Tedder narrated the report.