General — 28 February 2014 — by Kareem Clarke
Citrus greening threatens to disintegrate citrus industry

The present crisis involving the fallout of the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) and Banks Holdings Ltd. has certainly taken a toll on the besieged citrus industry; however, there is also a very real, ever-increasing threat to the industry which makes a resolution to the Citrus Products of Belize (CPBL) current cash flow crunch even more urgent.

Citrus greening disease, also known by its Chinese name HuangLongBing (HLB) or Yellow Dragon Disease, has been labeled as the worst disease to afflict citrus, especially since there is no cure and groves of trees have been known to decline within 1 to 10 years of being infected.

Today, Amandala took a trip to Plant World Nursery, a 4-million dollar nursery project – funded and maiintained almost entirely by the CGA – which is designed to prevent the spread and transmission of the disease (which is carried by insects such as the Asian citrus psyllid) by nurturing citrus trees that are free from the disease.

Nursery Manager for the CGA, Thomas Tate, told us about the facility – which can house up to 360,000 plants at any given time. Tate said, “We have here a 360,000-plant capacity citrus nursery which is divided into 3 buildings of 1 acre each.”

Tate told us that nurseries used to be open-air operations where the trees were planted in the ground; however most trees are now planted indoors in bags due to the threat of the HLB disease.

Although there are sanctioned nurseries such as Plant World Nursery in Red Bank Village just off the Southern Highway, Amandala understands that there are many other renegade nurseries in the area which are run by ‘large farmers’ who choose to discount the dangers of the HLB disease and run the risk of operating outdoor, illegal nurseries.

Tate mentioned that nurseries such as those thrive due to lack of enforcement regulations by authorities.

Veronica Manzanero-Mahil, Research and Extension Director of the Citrus Research and Education Institute, expounded on the prevalence of the HLB disease, its effects and the role that she plays in that very critical aspect of the citrus industry. She stated, “At the Citrus Research and Education Institute, we look specifically at threats, and one of the major threats we are looking at right now is the presence of HuangLongBing in Belize because it is a very devastating citrus disease if not managed.”

The disease – which was first detected in Belize in 2009 – has the potential of wiping out the entire citrus industry in Belize. In terms of the CGA’s approach to combating its effects, Mahil said, “The CGA has been the leader in the management of HLB. We have implemented several strategies; one of them being the regional area-wide management of the vector, which is the most important control strategy. The second is the production of clean, certified plants. The CGA not only has a nursery, but we also manage the [citrus certification] program and we support other nurseries in ensuring that only clean, disease-free plants are produced in the citrus industry.”

Belize is not the only country trying to battle the HLB disease — developed countries such as Brazil and the United States are also reportedly under attack from HLB, and are having difficulties curtailing its spread.

Although no assessment has yet been made in Belize as to the losses related to citrus greening since the required experts are not readily available in the country, Amandala understands that the cost of fighting off the deadly disease has been significant.

There has been much criticism locally of the use of public funds to invest in an industry which may soon be devoured by an incurable and many times irrepressible disease.

Mahil asserted, however, that there is hope for the citrus industry in Belize since Brazil and Florida have other environmental issues and diseases that also affect their citrus plants. She suggested that local growers can overcome the disease, but all parties, including Government, need to be on-board in order for the effort to be successful. Mahil explained, “The CGA has been proactive, but with HLB we need everybody on-board and we need the Government to pass legislation so that all stakeholders in the industry fight against this disease because even though the CGA is making efforts, we need the government to play its role.”

Growers who are not a part of the CGA reportedly do not recognize HLB as a problem and have been lackadaisical in dealing with its presence.

According to the CGA, these ‘large growers’ – who make up over 40 percent of the industry – ignore recommendations to properly handle citrus greening and believe that the solution to the problem is the simple use of fertilizer.

We are told that small growers, on the other hand, are worried because the disease has caused many of their fruit to grow deformed and fall off the trees, which is a situation that has worsened extensively since farmers have not been able to access funds to pay their workers, much less combat the disease.

In terms of the government’s role in warding off the occurrences of the disease – which we understand has been minimal at best – Mahil said that the hope is that GOB would be more attentive to the disease now that they have a stake in the industry. “I think now with the Government on-board, it really gives a brighter future for the citrus industry because while the Government has been dormant in legislating control strategies for HLB, they now have a stake and a responsibility to protect these public funds, and they will be more willing to regulate and legislate what ought to be done to manage this disease so that we can have the existence of a very productive citrus industry”, she asserted.

While the CGA and the large farmers have different approaches to citrus greening, Growers Investment Company Chairman Denzil Jenkins agreed that there needs to be a unified approach in order to lessen the probability of devastating effects from HLB. Jenkins said, “As soon as we discovered the disease, our researchers knew that it was a threat. Within 3 days, we had a meeting with the Prime Minister to try to alert the Government as to the seriousness of this disease. It has taken 5 years for the kind of seriousness that we believe needs to be given to this disease, and we can only say at this point that we are thankful that the PM and GOB realize the need for nothing less than a unified approach to the management and control of HLB.”

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