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Florida agriculture leaders are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rescind an agreement to allow certain citrus varieties from China into the U.S.

California Citrus Mutual, while agreeing pest exclusion measures are important, and noting the timing is bad with the pandemic, said allowing China to export to the U.S. is part of the “phase one” trade deal that will allow more U.S. oranges to arrive in China.

On April 14, the USDA approved imports of Chinese pummelo, nanfeng honey mandarin, ponkan, sweet orange, and satsuma mandarins. USDA scientists believe the Chinese citrus varieties can be safely imported into the U.S. under a systems approach to protect against the introduction of plant pests, the agency said at the time.

In an April 21 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called the decision a “misguided policy change,” during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it poses a risk to Florida’s citrus industry and other crops. Fried said in a news release that huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greening disease, originated in China and has caused a 75% drop in production of citrus in Florida in the past 15 years.

“After all that Florida’s industry has overcome and the current challenges facing our farmers, to put our agriculture industry at risk by allowing both the introduction of additional invasive species as well as increased foreign competition is beyond misguided,” Fried said in the letter.  “To kick our agriculture community while they are down, and when our domestic food supply depends on them more than ever, is just plain wrong.”
Florida Citrus Mutual said the USDA decision is a “double whammy.” 

“The Florida citrus industry is already facing a devastating non-native disease called HLB that originated in China and has ravaged our groves over the past decade,” executive vice president and CEO Mike Sparks said in the release. “We need to take another look at this decision.”

Give and take on trade issues with China is a reality, said Casey Creamer, president and CEO of the California Citrus Mutual.

He said the group wants the USDA to closely monitor the pest risk associated with imports of Chinese citrus.

“There is going to be a continued effort with us working with (USDA) to hold them to whatever they can do to keep out the pests,” Creamer said. 

The timing of the USDA approval in view of the coronavirus pandemic is unfortunate, he said.

However, Creamer said U.S. trade negotiators made a commitment in the phase one agreement with China to proceed with access for Chinese citrus, which also opened the door for increased sales of U.S. agricultural commodities to China, including oranges. China also cut tariffs on U.S. citrus on March 1 from about 70% to about half that level, Creamer said.

“Just reopening that market for us was a significant consideration,” he said. “So while we haven’t got back to where we normally were, it’s been a welcome sign for California growers to have additional volumes to export to China.” 

Putting improved U.S. citrus export prospects at risk by denying Chinese citrus access to U.S. markets could be costly. 

Creamer said China consumes 92% of its domestic citrus crop and is a net importer of citrus.

“We just don’t anticipate there is going to be a big push for Chinese citrus,” he said.
 

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