Florida counts on experimental trees to fight orange plague

(Reuters) – Florida citrus researchers are preparing to launch a large-scale test of new disease-tolerant orange tree rootstock in what one likened to a leap of faith to save the $9 billion state industry from a deadly citrus greening “tsunami.”

Florida, second to Brazil in global orange juice production, has lost billions of dollars in revenues from the disease that is killing orange trees faster than they can be replaced.

Citrus greening, which makes the fruit unpalatable and kills trees within a few years, has helped put state orange production on a downward trend.

The bacteria threatens an industry that employs more than 76,000 full- and part-time workers and provides over 90 percent of orange juice consumed in the United States.

So desperate are growers to find a solution to the greening crisis that they are prepared to start planting the new rootstock before testing on it is even completed, researchers say.

“This is a huge, risky experiment. It illustrates the desperate situation the Florida citrus industry feels that it is in,” said Fred Gmitter, a University of Florida horticulture professor who is part of the test team.

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