HUANGLONBING (HLB) OR citrus greening disease is here to stay, and for the local citrus industry to survive and thrive will require a serious about turn in the way farmers treat their trees, according to Alfred Barrett, programme manager of the Jamaica Citrus Protection Agency. Consultant Paul Mears, who visited the island recently at the behest of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, (FAO) agrees. "Growers have to make the decision to stay productive. It's really a two-fold approach we've taken in Florida, which is controlling the vector and, therefore, the movement of the disease and give the plants a fighting chance by supplementing their nutrition," Mears told AgroGleaner.
"It cannot be business as usual. It cannot be farmers not taking care of their trees and not seeing it as important to come to training. Right now, we have to be begging farmers to come out to meetings. Those days are gone. If you are serious about citrus production, you can't sit on the fence," Barrett shared in a separate interview.
Citrus greening is now widespread across Jamaica with the infection rate in St Catherine and Clarendon (main citrus growing belt) officially declared at 30 per cent. However, AgroGleaner has been reliably informed that the true rate is between 50 and 70 per cent, with 100 per cent infection in a section of Trelawny.
Initial efforts at dealing with citrus greening sought to remove infected trees from the groves, but this proved impractical, according to Barrett.
"In terms of the standards that are set, once you reach 28 per cent cumulative plants infected, Brazil recommends that you take out the entire grove. So it means that almost half of our groves would have to be taken out. We actually started. One farmer started the inspection and removal of three and they took out about 10,000 plants and after three months we decided that no, if we continue in this vein we are not going to have a grove.
The presence of citrus greening in Florida was confirmed about 2003-4 and Paul Mears, one of the FAO consultants who recently visited Jamaica to assist with the long-term resuscitation programme, is employed to the Florida Department of Agriculture. His sole responsibility as an environmental supervisor is in citrus-health response, covering 10 counties in South Florida. Mears has been fully involved in the greening programme and has done a lot of collaborative work with the University of Florida.
He is convinced that the local industry can be saved, but it will require political will, hard work on the part of farmers and a lot of cash.
"The success of the programme is intricately tied to proper care of the trees themselves so that you give the trees a fighting chance and at the same time fight the vector to prevent reinfection of these trees. So the trees will survive and give increased yield, but it is going be dependent upon growers changing their farming practices," Mears advised.
Greening is a bacterial disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid which greatly reduces yield and, thereby, the economic value of citrus trees, eventually killing them. It can also be transmitted by grafting infected bud wood but is not passed by wind, rain or through contact with contaminated personnel. To date, there is no known cure or resistant varieties of citrus to the disease. However, it poses no threat to humans or animals.