As our citrus-growing counterparts in Florida suffer the loss of production because of Asian citrus psyllid and huanglongbing (HLB), California has the advantage of learning from their experience.

Lessons from Florida aid in California's Asian citrus psyllid fight

Ted Batkin
California Citrus Research Board

One warning comes through loudly — aggressive action to control the psyllid and constant testing for the bacterium causing HLB are critical to save citrus.

We’re heeding the warning.

The psyllid can be a carrier of bacteria that can cause the fatal tree disease known as HLB and citrus greening disease. While not harmful to human health, HLB destroys production, appearance and value of citrus trees, and the taste of their fruit and juice. Once a tree is infected with HLB, there’s no cure and the tree will die.

In Florida, the psyllid’s threat came when the industry was concerned about citrus canker, and little was done to control the psyllid’s population until it was too late and HLB was present. The disease was first found in two counties. Six months later, it was found in 12.

In less than two years, it was identified in 30 counties — Florida’s entire citrus-producing region. The rapid detection of HLB in Florida underscores the need for California to act now, before the disease makes its way into citrus-production areas, threatening our $1.6 billion industry.

At the California Citrus Research Board, we’ve been monitoring the psyllid threat worldwide for more than 10 years. Before the psyllid made its way into Mexico and California, we had begun educating growers and others involved with the process — retailers, master gardeners, pest control advisers and consumers — that, if not controlled, HLB will be a death sentence for California citrus. We’re asking everyone, including homeowners, to help us in this fight.

We’re collaborating with county officials, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support and supplement their efforts. We’ve increased our program with a team of field trappers and identifiers in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.

Ultimately, the CCRB program will monitor groves throughout the state. Using detection grids, we’re able to detect populations early in their life stage, meaning spread of the psyllids will be limited and threat of HLB reduced.

We’re also providing rapid and mass testing of psyllids and plant material through our new lab in Riverside, Calif., and have plans to increase testing with a lab to open in San Joaquin Valley in 2010. We anticipate the ability to test more than 4,000 samples weekly when operating at maximum levels.

Meanwhile, CCRB supports research on two focus areas related to the psyllid and HLB: improved detection tools, so we can find an infection in a tree earlier, and better trapping systems that have some level of attractancy.

So far, we’ve identified a library of 50 volatile organic compounds that show promise to serve as an attractant. These will be tested in 2010 to select the best compounds and applied to the traps for confirmation. We’re also researching improved formulations for treatment, better use of crop protection tools and better organic solutions to suppress the psyllid.

It’s critical to note this pest will not travel on packed cartons of fruit, nor will it or HLB impact human health. The problem is strictly contained in groves and backyards and does not affect distributors, wholesalers or retailers.

Thus far, the psyllid has been found in backyard citrus in parts of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, sparking quarantines in these areas. Tests have been negative for the disease, but the pest’s presence is a warning sign.

The most recent psyllid detection in Valley Center, Calif., is a short distance from a commercial grove, where the abundance of citrus trees will allow the pest to spread and reproduce more easily and make it more difficult to control.

While the psyllid and HLB can be a death sentence for California citrus, we’re not going down without a fight. California has joined Florida and Texas to develop joint research to meet the U.S. citrus industry’s needs while allowing each state to address its priorities. Continued research programs will find management solutions and in-plant solutions to protect trees.
The citrus industry will continue to be viable well into the future, as technological advances find solutions.

Meanwhile, we rely on the support from our grower community — which earlier this year voted to generate more than $9 million annually to help fund the battle to control and eradicate the psyllid — and others with a vested interest in saving California citrus.

For more information, contact CCRB at (559) 738-0246 or visit

Ted Batkin is president of the California Citrus Research Board.

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