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Bacteria from China pose threat to Fla. citrus industry

Provider of 80 percent of juice in US faces risk

A dead orange tree in Plant City, Fla., symbolizes the worry that many have about the spread of the ‘‘citrus greening.’’

Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

A dead orange tree in Plant City, Fla., symbolizes the worry that many have about the spread of the ‘‘citrus greening.’’

WASHINGTON — The sprawling citrus orchard that Victor Story toured recently sure looked like a steal. For sale at $11,000 an acre, the investors who owned it were going to lose money, and potential buyers like Story might have stood to reap a handsome reward.

But as he bumped along the 40 acres of groves in a large SUV, Story was taken aback by the sickly look of the trees. Their leaves were an inch shorter than normal and yellowing. Full-size oranges were still apple green. Other mature oranges that should have been the size of baseballs were no bigger than ping-pong balls.

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‘‘That fruit’s never going to be of any value,’’ said Story, 68, who has been growing fruit all his life. He said his pickers wouldn’t even bother to reach for it. ‘‘It’s going to fall off the tree; it’s never going to get squeezed,’’ he said. ‘‘These investors paid $15,000 an acre for that grove. I know because they bought it from a friend. I frankly don’t think it will sell for $11,000.’’

What Story saw in the orchard in Polk County, Fla., wasn’t an anomaly. It’s the new norm in the Sunshine State, where about half the trees in every citrus orchard are stricken with an incurable bacterial infection from China that goes by many names: huanglongbing, ‘‘yellow dragon disease’’ and ‘‘citrus greening.’’

Growers, agriculturalists, and academics liken it to cancer. Roots become deformed. Fruits drop from limbs prematurely and rot. The trees slowly die.

‘That fruit’s never going to be of any value. It’s going to fall off the tree; it’s never going to get squeezed.’

Victor Story, potential orchard buyer who has been growing fruit all his life 
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The bacteria is spread by a tiny, invasive bug also from China, called Asian citrus psyllid. It acquires the bacteria while feeding on the leaves of infected trees, then transmits it when feeding on healthy trees — akin to the way mosquitoes transfer malaria.

Psyllids were first detected in a Broward County, Fla., garden in 1998 and spread to 31 other counties within two years. The Asian strain of the bacteria was discovered in 2005 just south of Miami. The disease ruins the look and taste of the fruit but isn’t known to harm humans.

Florida citrus, which provides up to 80 percent of America’s orange juice, has been hardest hit, but the disease — which also has an African and Latin American strain — also has been detected in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and California.

It has spread to other parts of the world, including Mexico, India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil, which provides nearly 20 percent of the orange juice Americans drink. In each case, the impact to citrus has been devastating.

Worldwide concern prompted 500 scientists from more than 20 nations to gather in Orlando last February for a conference on huanglongbing. Despite the fact that nearly $80 million has been poured into research on the disease, scientists still don’t know how to eliminate the bacteria or remove it from trees.

Even those who are optimistic about a scientific breakthrough admit that if the infection continues unabated for another decade or so — admit-tedly one of the worst possible outcomes — Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry could be destroyed.

‘‘What’s at stake is orange juice on the breakfast table,’’ said Michael Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade association. ‘‘I don’t want to indicate that’s going to happen next year. With a 10-year decline, your supply will reduce.’’

Researchers funded by the industry, the state and the US Department of Agriculture are exploring an option that could save the trees and their citrus, but also turn off consumers: engineering and planting genetically modified trees that are resistant to the bacteria carried by the psyllid.

‘‘Would that be accepted by the public?’’ Sparks asked. ‘‘You don’t have to do a focus group or another survey to know it is a public concern.’’

He said he and the growers hope they don’t get to the point where they have to use a genetically modified plant.

The threat to the world’s citrus production is another example of how, in an era of global trade and travel, viruses, insects, and animals are inad-vertently transported to places they don’t belong.

Even before being hit by the disease, Florida’s orange, grapefruit, and specialty fruit crops faced many threats, including hurricanes, frost, and a fungus that causes canker disease. The crops have been declining since the mid-1990s.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said deadly bacteria threatening Florida’s citrus industry have also been detected in Arizona. While an insect known to transport the bacteria to trees is present in that state, no trees have tested positive for the bacteria.

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