Just imagine enjoying that next frozen margarita without a bowl of chips and guacamole within reach, or not layering avocado slices on a fresh turkey hero. Those are scenarios a new research effort is hoping no one has to experience in the near future and why a battle is being launched in Florida to save the avocado from a fungus spread by an intrusive beetle.
The goal is to ensure the fungus, called laurel wilt, is contained and eliminated in Florida avocado groves before it spreads and potentially cripples the U.S. avocado hotbed: California's avocado farms.
The big weapons in the battle are canines that can sniff out the fungus and drones that can provide an aerial view of avocado crops and if they're being attacked by the ambrosia beetle, which hails from Asia, and fighting a laurel wilt blight.
"This is probably the biggest threat to the Florida avocado that's ever been seen," said Jonathan H. Crane, a tropical fruit specialist at the University of Florida. There is even a Twitter campaign, #SavetheGuac, to help spread the word.
Stemming the blight in Florida is key to ensuring the beetle and fungus don't reach California, which produces 90 percent of U.S. avocados, or Texas. If that happens, the U.S. market will have to depend on import from Mexico, and that will bring higher prices for avocados. As California's avocado production is a $400 million business, the economic impact of a severe blight is just as serious as the eradication of a popular snack.
Here's a video showing the blight-hunting canines at work:
According to researchers, the ambrosia beetle arrived in the U.S. in 2002, landing first in Georgia and has spread throughout the southeast, enjoying redbay laurel trees as living areas. The beetles then spread laurel wilt, and the fungus can kill a tree within two months.
The researchers, who hail from Florida International University and the University of Florida, are using the dogs and drone trackers to find the fungus before it truly takes hold as there is no remediation once there are thin, hair-like prongs showing up on tree trunks and limbs. If the fungus can be caught before it evolves into that scenario, there is hope of eliminating it from a tree.
The drones feature thermal digital imaging cameras that snap shots of groves. Researchers then analyze the photos to locate trees showing early infestation signs.
Then, it's time to send in the dogs, of which there are four. The dog sniffing team boasts two Belgian Malinois and two shelter dogs.
"It's almost like cancer detection," said Ken Furton, an FIU provost and professor of chemistry. "Multiple dogs have alerted on (infected) trees that show no signs of infection."
Once the dogs hone in on the tree, it is removed and burned, and nearby trees are treated with a fungicide as a preventative measure.
Trying to eradicate the beetle population would prove too expensive and time intensive, as beetles are tricky and quick.
So far, the fungus has killed swamp bay trees across 330,000 acres in the Everglades.
The research effort is being supported by a $148,000 state grant.
"Florida's warm climate makes our state a hotbed for invasive species and diseases," said Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner. "Florida's avocado industry has a $64 million economic impact in our state, and we will continue to aggressively protect our agriculture industry with cutting-edge research and technology."