Florida's battered citrus industry is gaining a new partner in its decadelong fight against a disease ravaging the state's groves: the German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer AG.
The company plans to announce on Wednesday a three-year research agreement with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, a nonprofit created by the Florida citrus industry. The partnership aims to develop new ways to combat citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease that depletes trees and can cause fruit to drop to the ground prematurely.
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The foundation assembled $12 million in funding from citrus growers and companies including Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., which are big buyers of Florida citrus for their juice brands. Bayer will dedicate 12 researchers to the effort, a library of more than 1 million chemicals and formidable lab resources. If it finds potential treatments, the company will further develop and commercialize them.
"Without advanced tools to control citrus greening, the citrus industry in Florida could be out of business within 10 to 15 years," said Adrian Percy, head of research and development at the crop-science division of Bayer.
Florida growers are projected to produce 68.7 million boxes of oranges in the year ending Sept. 30, down 53% from the 146.7 million boxes five years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's July forecast. Land devoted to citrus in the state declined 19% to 437,000 acres in the past nine years, according to the Florida Citrus Mutual, a marketing cooperative.
Tom Jerkins, president of Premier Citrus, which has more than 20,000 acres of citrus groves in Florida, said he is hopeful about the research pact. His company has lost 30% to 40% of its citrus acreage and faced a 30% to 50% increase in costs in the past decade as a result of greening, he said.
"What this agreement allows us to do is engage the powerful industrial, analytical assay skill" of Bayer, Mr. Jerkins said. "This is a very big deal for us."
The citrus industry accounts for 45,000 jobs in Florida and economic activity of $8.6 billion, according to the Florida Citrus Mutual. The state provides most of the oranges used for juice in the U.S.
"With this increased focus on research, we are ensuring the quality and consistency of our fruit supply," said a representative for Coke, whose brands include Minute Maid and Simply Orange and which contributed $500,000 to the Bayer collaboration.
"The greening issue is a serious global threat, and we want to ensure the survival and competitiveness of Florida's citrus growers," said a representative for Pepsi, which owns the Tropicana brand.
Greening, also known as Huanglongbing, has been a maddening foe for the citrus industry. The bacterium is transmitted by an insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, which injects it into the tree's vascular system. The disease hinders the flow of nutrition in the tree and slowly starves it.
Growers have explored a range of methods to fight greening. Some have employed intensive spraying to try to reduce the psyllid population, without much success. Researchers are investigating so-called RNA interference, a biological process that could disrupt the psyllids' genes and affect their reproduction. Another program involved unleashing an Asian wasp that attacks the psyllid.
Other efforts focus on battling the bacterium. For the past two years, growers have been able to use three approved bactericides to reduce the level of bacteria in trees, said Harold Browning, chief operating officer at the Citrus Research and Development Foundation. Researchers also are studying different varieties of citrus trees to determine which might be more-tolerant of greening. But deriving a truly resistant plant is at least five to 10 years away, Mr. Browning said.
Bayer's work will focus on testing thousands of biological agents and chemical compounds to identify those that might either attack greening bacteria or bolster trees' defenses, Mr. Percy said. The lab work will be conducted in Bayer facilities in West Sacramento, Calif., and either France or Germany. The aim, he said, is to have candidates ready to test in groves within two to three years.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 16, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)