A Deadly Citrus Tree Disease Is Wreaking Havoc on California Fruit

"If our commercial citrus gets infected with this disease, we could potentially lose California citrus."

<p>The Image Party / Shutterstock</p>

The Image Party / Shutterstock

The Director of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Division has been preparing for years to tackle a deadly citrus disease that is beginning to spread across California.

Citrus Greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB), is a fatal and incurable citrus tree disease. Beloved oranges, limes, lemons, and grapefruits, to name a few, are at risk for encountering the infected insect, Diaphorina citri Kuwayama, which carries the deadly contamination. HLB has been destroying citrus trees across the US for years and is beginning to wreak havoc again in parts of California.

California recently surpassed Florida in orange production for the first time as the Sunshine State reckons with crop failure, partly due to a persistent pest. Victoria Hornbaker, who serves as the Director of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Division at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, shared with Food & Wine, "In California, we are a fresh fruit state; those beautiful pieces of citrus that you see on your table and at the grocery store, if impacted by this disease, will never fully ripen and have a rancid taste."

:Owls Are Helping California Vineyards Stay Pest-Free

The division is part of a more significant movement of researchers, government officials, community residents, and business owners working to protect California citrus from invasive pests and diseases.

Hornbaker tells Food & Wine, "We look at Florida, they've had HLB since 2005, and their production is less than half of what it used to be."

California earns roughly $7 billion in citrus production, employing over 22,000 people. The fatal plant diseases threaten the livelihoods of thousands of workers and pose risks for citrus price hikes. If California has learned anything from Florida's HLB devastation, government officials need to act fast to avoid a potential citrus disaster.

Tamara Wood, Communications Consultant for Florida Citrus Mutual, an organization advocating for citrus growers, shared with Food & Wine that they are not surprised by the spread of HLB. "We had hoped that our experience and research here in Florida would have provided California with strategies to prevent the spread of the disease, and while I do believe they are in a better place to combat the effects, we just haven't found that silver bullet to stop it yet," says Wood.

:This Is Why Eggs Are So Expensive Right Now

Hornbaker shared with Food & Wine that HLB is currently only impacting residential citrus growers in California. Still, the consequences will be dire if the disease spreads to commercial growers. She warns, "If our commercial citrus gets infected with this disease, we could potentially lose California citrus."

The California Department of Food and Agriculture has actively been working on outreach to warn residents of the disease. Community members in Costa Mesa, California, woke up to flyers plastered around their neighborhood warning of citrus greening, reports the LA Times. And it doesn't stop there. Researchers across the nation are rushing against the clock to discover cures. Hornbaker shares, "There is a lot of work going into determining varieties that are resistant or tolerant to the bacteria."

The egg shortage and price hike fiasco taught us that climate change is heavily impacting our food supply. And, Hornbaker tells Food & Wine that with temperature changes, the likelihood of pests will increase.

The quest for saving fruits like oranges and lemons is even more critical than ever. Still, Hornbaker shared that the California citrus community is up for the challenge. She credits homeowners especially for being on top of reporting HLB cases to the department. "We're going to continue to work closely with all of our partners and keep preventing, knock on wood, the spread of the disease into commercial growth.”