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Greening disease threatens Florida citrus industry

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They say 'Big things come from small things.' In the case of the citrus industry in Florida, a series of unfortunate events started with a tiny brown bug.

Florida oranges are in danger of being infected with a disease called 'huanglongbing.' Also known as the 'yellow dragon,' the disease is more popular in Florida as "greening."

Greening started with mottled bug called the Asia Citrus Psyllid. This bug carries a kind of bacteria that are left behind when the psyllid eats the leaves of the citrus tree. No information on how exactly it came to the United States, it was first discovered to arrive in Florida in 1998 but it was only 2005 that greening started, believed to have spread with the hurricanes.

The greening disease still allows the citrus tree to produce fruits but vascular system is clogged over time. The result? Normal-looking fruit falls and tree dies slowly.

This phenomenon has been threatening the citrus economy of Florida the past years. Back in 2011, the family of Richard Skinner who used to sell oranges to big juice companies had to close down the business. Skinner's wife's grandfather started planting oranges 100 years ago but unfortunately, had to cut down about 2,600 orange trees on the grove because of greening.

Ellis Hunt Jr. of Florida's Natural juice is reportedly also struggling, no thanks to the diseases. Hunt's family owns 5,000-acres of citrus groves. All his life, it was all about oranges having been born to a family who is in the business started by his grandfather. Recently, he discovered about 75 percent of the groves were infected by greening and leaves have already turned to yellow.

Every year, Hunt spends $2,000 on production buying nutrients. His company sprays on the trees trying to control the psyllid bug. Infected trees are pulled out and burned to prevent from spreading.

The yellow dragon disease, aka greening, greatly affects the industry in Florida.

"This affects the whole state. The economic impact. The landscape. The iconic image of Florida and how it has drawn people here to smell the orange blossoms in the spring and look forward to that Christmas gift of fresh Florida citrus," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said.

"It will have a ripple effect throughout the economy if we can't get our arms around this disease," Putnam, who also comes from a family into the orange business, said.

The citrus industry of Florida could collapse if a solution isn't found. This will result to about 75,000 jobs lost if not treated soon.

Right now, there is no magic spray or injection for the problem. However, some researchers are already doing experiments. Professors of horticulture Jude Grosser and Fred Gmitter have been studying citrus breeding and genetics. The two discovered that a type of orange tree is tolerant to greening, therefore, has a possibility of containing the disease.

Meanwhile, Rick Kress of the Southern Gardens Citrus is positive that the industry is here to stay.

"Irrespective of the challenges, Florida orange juice is not going to go away," Kress said. He believes that the industry can find a solution to the problem. "Because Florida had the disease first, we're on the forefront of dealing with it and finding a solution that will ultimately benefit the entire United States citrus industry," he added. 

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