Citrus production threatened, prices due to rise

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Citrus Florida

The Florida citrus industry is struggling to recover from a string
of disease and natural disaster, but with production forecasts down
and likely to fall further, and with no carry-over supplies from
last season, it looks likely that food manufacturers will not
escape increased prices for citrus ingredients.

According to the USDA's latest production forecasts, published last month, Florida's orange production this season is set at 190 million 90-pound boxes, compared to last season's 150 million boxes. However, this figure will certainly fall in the updated forecasts due to be published in December, once the impact of Hurricane Wilma has been taken into account.

And last season, low production was subsidised with carry-over from the surplus stocks of the 2003-2004 season, when 242 million boxes of oranges had been produced.

According to the USDA, growers are already receiving 50-75 percent increased prices for their oranges. And with no supply buffer for the market this year, and with supply also down in Brazil, the world's largest producer of orange juice, prices are set to increase even further.

The situation for grapefruits appears to be the same, with October's figures estimating a production of 24 million boxes, compared to almost 13 million boxes in the 2004-2005 season and 41 million boxes in the 2003-2004 season.

The industry's latest concern is the spread of citrus canker, a disease first detected in Miami in October 1995, which was in the process of being eradicated when last year's hurricanes caused it to be spread across the region.

"Canker is increasingly being found, and for the first time this year it has started to have an affect on citrus production forecasts,"​ said Bob Terry, agricultural statistics administrator a the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Estimates reveal that the disease has wiped out 10 percent of Florida's citrus groves, and may well pose a significant threat to the state's citrus nurseries. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), around 11 million commercial and nursery trees have been affected by the disease.

"The state is now working together with the industry to develop other management practices to protect the industry, such as moving nursery operations to canker-free areas further north,"​ said Denise Feiber of the FDACS.

"Our aim is to eradicate canker within the next two years,"​ she added.

The industry is also currently threatened by a plant condition from China known as yellow dragon disease or citrus greening that has been found in southeast Florida and appears to be spreading. Although the disease poses no direct health threat to humans, it can be devastating to citrus trees and the industry.

But according to Terry, a far bigger threat is Tristeza, or CTV (Citrus Tristeza Virus), a disease that spreads slowly but kills the trees it infects.

"We've been losing trees to that for the last 10 to 15 years, and it's continuing,"​ he said.

Indeed the industry's long-term outlook remains uncertain, as it also faces another threat: Southeastern Florida is one of the fastest-growing areas for both commercial and residential development.

"There are about 1000 people a day moving into Florida, and this puts tremendous pressure on available land, since the areas that are desirable locations for citrus trees are also desirable locations for development,"​ said Terry.

Yet while citrus production is under threat as a result of the pressures on the industry, citrus consumption appears to be on the rise, as it fits in with the general trend towards growing consumer awareness about nutrition and health.

"Our research shows that consumers are becoming more aware of the nutritional quality of their foods and how that affects their health and well-being,"​ said Dan Gunter, executive director of Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC). "This is the foundation for our marketing programs, and we are very optimistic that consumer demand for naturally nutritious foods, such as 100 percent orange juice and grapefruit juice will increase.

"Orange juice and grapefruit juice are some of the most naturally nutrient-rich beverages on the market. Our job at FDOC is to make sure that story is heard and understood by consumers."

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