CAPE CORAL, Fla. — We know the Florida citrus industry has been hit hard in recent years by hurricanes, freeze events and inflation. Experts say the biggest hit is from citrus greening disease. The University of Florida is hoping to speed up solutions to diseases with a new crop transformation center.
"I am afraid in five years if we haven't solved this problem, there may be no industry left to save," said Dr. Scott Angle, Senior VP for Agriculture and Natural Resources at UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
According to the USDA, citrus greening disease was first detected in Florida in 2005. Since then, it’s decreased production by 75%, while production costs have doubled during the same time.
"We are at point where we may lose the industry unless we do something,” said Dr. Angle. “It's really taking all shots on goals right now."
While citrus growers are using new methods to fight greening, like microbial injections, Dr. Angle says these aren't long term solutions.
"Ultimately what we want is a tree that is resistant to the disease so that we don't have to use chemicals and other materials to protect the trees," said Dr. Angle.
The UF Crop Transformation Center will look to do that through different breeding methods.
“We will use certainly traditional breeding, just like in any other crop in the history of agriculture, that we have developed these new crops with,” said Dr. Angle. “That is when you take two parents and cross them together. We use a relatively new technology called crisper technology. That’s where there is no new DNA that is inserted into the plant. So, it is not considered genetic engineering, genetic transformation. But we will also look at, this is almost an oxymoron, but tradition genetic engineering. Where we actually do add new genes.”
But with time of the essence, Dr. Angle says the university is looking to find a solution quickly.
"We are taking down barriers everywhere we can,” said Dr. Angle. ”We are telling everyone if we take more than 5 years to get this problem solved, then solutions don't matter at that point. It's more of a business proposition than an academic proposition."
UF is still in the early stages of this new initiative and is still in the process of bringing in experts from around the industry.
They're also investing $2 million in research and facilities for the next two years.
Dr. Angle adds that this is not the citrus transformation center, but the crop transformation center. He hopes that once a solution to citrus greening is found, they can find solutions to other crop diseases plaguing our farmers.