After years of being under siege by a devastating bacterial disease known as "citrus greening," Puerto Rico's citrus industry and its harvest of orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime produce are about to be wiped out.
At stake is an industry that generated about $11 million in sales in past fiscal years, representing 34% of the agriculture sector's total contribution of $32.6 million to the local economy, according to former Agriculture secretary Javier Rivera Aquino. Late last year the citrus production on the island had decreased by about 80% because of citrus greening.
According to the 2012 census released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the citrus segment in Puerto Rico is dominated by orange crops, comprising 8,750 acres and 1,979 farms. By the same token, the island has 220 grapefruit farms comprising 228 acres; 221 farms growing lemons and limes extending over 300 acres; and 213 farms specializing in an orange/grapefruit hybrid, on 315 acres. The industry also employs about 530 farmers.
The bacteria that are laying waste to the whole industry came from China, known by its original name Huanglonbing, which means "Yellow Dragon Disease." The bacteria's main method of transmission is through jumping plant lice, also known as psyllids, which feed on citrus plants. As the psyllids bite through the leaves and branches, the bacteria enter the tree, where it can wreak havoc for years without being detected.
"With citrus greening, it's a twofold step, especially with plants that are already infected. The plants struggle because their root mass is decreased by about 30% to 50% during the first few years of infection," Shaw added. "All of that is prior to seeing the leaf change—when the nutrients are no longer being absorbed, the leaf loses color."
"The farmers feel helpless," said Héctor Rivera, general manager of Prico Produce, a retail produce supplier. "They have tried a thousand different ways to get rid of citrus greening, but they haven't seen any tangible results."
Enter Ergofito, an agricultural biotech company based in Italy, with additional facilities in South Africa. The firm recently launched a line of environmental remediation products that is touted as the last hope of the citrus industry in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, being capable of strengthening citrus plants to the point in which they can successfully withstand the harmful effects of citrus greening.
"Completely eradicating citrus greening is extremely difficult," Shaw said. "The best we can hope for is to build up the plants' resistance and in that situation, the Ergofito line is proving very successful."
The product, made up of a proprietary mix of microbes, is used in a similar way to fertilizer, but the similarities end there. "It treats the soil so that the plant doesn't have to stress to find the nutrients in the water. The microbes help to more or less bridge the gap between the root and the soil, and it's basically spoon-feeding the plant," Shaw explained. "By doing that, the plant can then dedicate its energy to building stronger cells and a better immune system."
As a result, psyllids find it tougher to chew on the tree. Plants treated in such a manner also secrete substances that make them unappetizing to bugs. The next step for the group is to obtain support from the Puerto Rico government, in the form of a $2 million allocation set aside to help the sector. Last August, Gov. Alejandro García Padilla declared a state of emergency in the citrus industry and ordered the local Agriculture Department to manage the funds.
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