Orange Crush

A Chinese pathogen has the citrus industry talking apocalypse.


Orange Crush

A Chinese pathogen has the citrus industry talking apocalypse.

By Alexander Zaitchik

On July 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture delivered some much-needed good news to Florida's recently battered citrus growers. In its final estimate for statewide citrus output in 2008, the agency expected the industry to produce 168 million boxes of oranges and grapefruit, a 30 percent increase over last year.

But the champagne bottles will stay corked in Florida groves. Despite this year's posthurricane bounce-back in production, the threat of huang long bing (HLB), or citrus greening disease, is casting a rapidly deepening shadow over the state's iconic fruit. As greening spreads west (it was discovered last week in Tijuana, Mexico), local farmers are just beginning to understand the existential nature of the bacterial threat.

"A year ago, we were just getting our heads around greening," says Michael Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's industry association. "Now it's clear this thing is stronger and more troubling than anything we've encountered in the past. It's bigger than canker. We could lose citrus in Florida. It's that big."

HLB, first discovered in China, is the deadliest and least understood pathogen in the citrus world. Spread by insects, it hibernates like HIV before striking like ebola, killing trees from the inside and transforming oranges and grapefruit into sickly, dry, and deformed green orbs. In a macabre touch, the disease turns citrus seeds black. There is no cure; infected plants must be uprooted and destroyed.

First detected in Florida a decade ago, HBL in 2007 spread to all 30 of the state's citrus growing counties, with the worst infections located in the south.

"We estimate that the disease has established itself in between 12 and 20 percent of all citrus trees in the state," says Denise D. Feiber, of the Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry. "We tell growers that if it isn't in their groves yet, it's likely on the way, or they just haven't tested thoroughly enough."

Terrified, the industry has begun to mobilize. Sparks speaks of a "Citrus Manhattan Project" currently under way in labs across the state, funded mostly by local growers. This December, Orlando will host a conference called Reaching Beyond Boundaries, which will bring together citrus scientists from around the world to share experiences and craft a globally coordinated defense strategy.

"In three years, my budget has gone from $1.5 to $20 million, fueled by the growth of HLB," says Steven Rogers, scientific coordinator for the Florida Citrus Production Research Advisory Council, the state agency that oversees citrus research. "HLB is a force to contend with, and there is a lot of work to do. We need help from the National Academy of Sciences and from scientists around the world to combat this."

HLB is also found throughout Asia and Latin America, including fellow hemispheric citrus giant Brazil, which together with Florida produces most of the world's orange juice. Says Sparks: "If Florida and Brazil go down, you're talking about the end of orange juice as we know it."


Bailing Out Junior

Once again, John Timoney is the exception to the rule.

By Francisco Alvarado

Police Chief John Timoney might be Miami's ultimate enforcer, but he has demonstrated a knack for flouting the rules. Last year, he helped himself to a free SUV from Lexus of Kendall, violating several departmental policies.

Timoney's most vocal critic, Fraternal Order of Police president Armando Aguilar, says the pattern goes at least as far back as 2005. On November 1 of that year — three days after Timoney's son Sean was arrested for allegedly trying to buy 400 pounds of marijuana in Spring Valley, New York — Miami's top cop and his wife Noreen put up their $256,000 condo at 1717 N. Bayshore Dr. as collateral to bond their son out. By doing so, Timoney violated the spirit, if not the letter, of a departmental rule that prohibits police officers from bailing anyone out of jail, Aguilar says.

On December 12, 2005, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute marijuana, Sean remained free on bail until his sentencing hearing nearly a year later. He served 18 months in federal prison until his release this past May.

In arguing for leniency, Sean's attorney, Ed Hayes, told Judge Thomas McAvoy that his client's father — a former deputy commissioner in the Big Apple — was unable to spend more time with his son growing up because he was busy turning "the tide in New York City" during the early Nineties, when crime finally began to decline.

"I understand that it is his son," Aguilar says. "But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The chief has fired officers for violating departmental policies he chooses to ignore."

The accusation comes at a rough time for the chief, who is still under fire for accepting the free Lexus, which he drove for the better part of a year before disclosure of the gratis SUV prompted him to return it. In addition to his being sanctioned and fined by the Miami-Dade and state ethics commissions, the city's Civilian Investigative Panel last week found that Timoney broke departmental rules including a ban on accepting gifts, guidelines on how to deal with the news media, and a requirement for officers to be truthful.

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