January 26, 2009

Bug threatens Calif. citrus industry

A bug that crossed the Mexican border at Tijuana in July threatens to bring catastrophe to California's $1.2 billion citrus industry, officials said.

State agriculture inspectors are intensifying their campaign against the Asian citrus psyllid, after the bug was observed last week in a San Diego neighborhood, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday. Agriculture officials said the bug was moving north at a rapid rate, although they believe California's orange groves have not yet been contaminated by citrus greening disease, which the bug can spread.

The psyllid does not harm citrus trees but if it lands on a tree that is already infected with the bacterium that causes citrus greening disease and feeds on the diseased tree, it can then carry the pathogen to other trees. The disease -- which is also called huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease -- has already caused catastrophic damage to orange growing operations in Florida and Brazil, the report said.

California agricultural officials have ordered quarantines in parts of San Diego and Imperial counties. Fruit can still be shipped from those regions but it must be cleaned before it is shipped.

California provides an estimated 85 percent of the U.S. fresh orange crop and virtually all of the domestic lemon market, the Times said. In addition, a third of California's citrus crop is marketed overseas, making the crop a significant source of foreign revenue amid a large and growing foreign trade deficit.