Citrus greening taking over Florida groves, while UF searches for a cure

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“It’s been a struggle for everyone in the citrus business,” says Ben McLean III, head of research at Uncle Matt’s Organic.

At the McLean Family Farms in Clermont, Florida, they are no stranger to all things citrus.

“Citrus has been our primary expertise for several generations from my grandad, to my dad to myself,” says McLean.

As owners of the Uncle Matts Organic juice company, they say their farms were booming for years—until their citrus started looking different.

“Six years ago at our height at Uncle Matts Organic, we had almost 1500 acres of citrus, and we’re probably down to 200 acres now, some of it, due to citrus greening disease,” says McLean.

They are just one of the thousands of farmers across the country that have groves diseased with citrus greening—also known as huánglóngbìng, HLB for short.

It’s a disease that originated from China, and found its way to Florida in 1998, making citrus trees look sparse, as the fruit falls prematurely to the ground.

The most obvious sign is the orange, that stays green, but that’s not all.

“Before you have the first above ground symptoms of citrus greening the pathogen will kill 30-40% of the root system below ground,” says Michael Rodgers, UF Citrus Center director and professor.

Causing the tree to die a slow death.

So what does this mean for Florida?

The Florida Department of Citrus says the sunshine state is the only U.S. producer of orange juice – providing more than half the nation’s orange juice, while the rest is imported.

The citrus industry provides more than 45,000 jobs across the state, but as greening spreads, prices are going up and farms are going out of business.

“It’s a terrible loss, we’ve seen a lot of packing houses close down, processing facilities close down, I think I heard there were 26 packing houses open, but 10 years ago there were over 100,” says McLean.

So what’s destroying Florida’s largest crop? It’s a resilient bug, that’s smaller than a grain of rice.

CBS 4 News went to the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, where an entire team is solely focused on curing this disease. And they say, this Asian citrus psyllid that lives and thrives on citrus trees— is the carrier for HLB.

“It can be considered a chronic problem in Florida that simply can’t be eradicated,” says Lukas Zstelinski, associate professor of entomology and nematology.

And the disease can start in a blink of an eye.

“What can happen is that you can go to a citrus grove with a very low population on insects, to an explosion or outbreak of psyllids in just seemingly overnight,” says Rodgers.

Scientists in UF say although 100% of the state is infected with this disease, they are determined to find a cure.

One of the possible ways is called genetic editing.

“So as our researchers those genes that play a role in citrus greening disease, then you simply go in and turn off or delete those genes, so that you no longer get that disease in the plant,” says Rodgers.

Even though there isn’t a cure yet, scientists are hopeful

“I’m confident to say that in the future—in the not so distant future we’ll have some solutions for citrus greening,” says Rodgers.

And the McLean family isn’t ready to give up.

“We’ll bounce back, something will happen we can just never give up, never surrender,” says McLean. “It keeps you coming back to try to make a living out of this crazy business.”

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