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The silent war on U.S. agriculture

US Congressmen from left Rep Filemon Vela Jr DTexas and Rep Collin Peterson DMinnesota examine branches from a tree infected with citrus greening Looking on are Humberto Garza district director for Velarsquos office center and Dr Erik Mirkov right virologist at the Texas AampM AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco At rear is Manny Gautreaux operations manager at the Center
<p>U.S. Congressmen (from left) Rep. Filemon Vela, Jr, D-Texas, and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, examine branches from a tree infected with citrus greening. Looking on are Humberto Garza, district director for Vela&rsquo;s office (center) and Dr. Erik Mirkov (right), virologist at the Texas A&amp;M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco. At rear is Manny Gautreaux, operations manager at the Center.</p>
Closing of the USDA-ARS Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, Texas, could compromise food saety and productivity.

As a result of emergency spending limitations and slashed federal budgets for many public programs, some related to agriculture, rural American may just now be entering a period foretold by policy architects and analysts at the height of the spending cut frenzy.

Those predictions included that so much budget cutting and program slashing would have an adverse effect on important and ongoing issues like food safety and national security.

One clear example is the closing of the USDA-ARS Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, Texas.

The days of effective agriculture-based research on the U.S.-Mexico border ended thanks to congressional budget cuts in 2010, which designated the center for closure, a development local, regional and national agricultural groups were calling both tragic and potentially dangerous.

The Weslaco center, along with nine other ARS centers across the nation, were on a list of budget cuts that resulted in closing that station and reducing field-based research in South Texas, a key research location for inbound tropical pests and disease. The facility was the largest ARS research center in the United States.

The move represented abandonment by federal lawmakers to hold firm on their commitment to the safety of the U.S. food system, and in spite of warnings from research insiders, the doors to the facility were locked and personnel either terminated or reassigned. The move raised the question of how important food safety is to the United States.

On a recent special tour-by-invitation, two U.S. Congressmen had an opportunity to learn how importance maintaining a first rate agricultural research facility in Deep South Texas is and the risks associated with closing the facility.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela Jr., D-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, toured facilities and met with scientists at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, located not far from the permanently-closed federal facility. Both are members of the House Agriculture Committee; Peterson is the ranking member.

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AgriLife researchers explained  how the Lower Rio Grande Valley serves as a gateway for international food imports and many of the nation's greatest plant and pest disease threats work their way from Mexico and points further south to the U.S. through this strategic shipping corridor that stretches from El Paso to Brownsville, Texas.

With movement of such high volumes of food products across a porous border, in spite of inspection stations on both sides, pests and pathogens slip through, either at ports of entry or by illegal or unexpected crossings at low river points in numerous locations along the 900-mile border. Occasionally, a stray cow, horse or burro wades across the river; a constant march of wildlife such as mule deer cross, and both local and migratory birds cross the border all the time.


HLB research

AgriLife research scientists discussed their research on a host of invasive pests and diseases affecting local crops, including citrus, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, cantaloupes and onions, but a dire warning about the U.S. citrus industry may have been the most daunting to visiting officials.

Huanglongbing (HLB, also known as citrus greening), a disease spread by a tiny Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP,) has devastated the Florida citrus industry. Over the last several years HLB has been discovered in Texas and California, and in spite of research efforts so far, nothing has been identified to save a tree once it is infected.

In a published report, AgriLife communication specialist Rod Santa Ana says Dr. Erik Mirkov, a virologist and molecular biologist at the center, spoke with Vela and Peterson about how citrus production in the U.S. is threatened by HLB—to the point of possibly not having orange juice in the future. Already the number of orange juice plants in Florida has diminished by nearly 30 percent and prospects call for less available fruit in the future.

Citrus greening is a bacterial disease, carried from tree to tree by the psyllid, Mirkov said. The disease clogs the trees’ arteries, resulting in small, misshapen fruit that tastes bitter and eventually kills the tree.

The only remaining strategy is to genetically modify a tree that contains two genes from spinach that provide resistance to HLB. Such GMO trees have been cultivated and testing indicates hybrid trees could survive the HLB invasion, but with complete tree replacement nationwide to be completely effective.

USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has taken the first step to kick start a tree replacement project. He announced last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made new financial assistance available to eligible Florida citrus growers for the removal of trees infected by HLB. The support comes through USDA's Tree Assistance Program.

"USDA is investing in research and a variety of strategies to combat citrus greening over the long-term. In the meantime though, this support will help ensure growers are not wiped out in the short-term," Vilsack said. "We must ensure that Florida's citrus industry can weather this storm while a more permanent solution to this problem is developed. The key to the citrus industry's survival is getting new trees in the ground, and we're doing everything we can to help with that."


Tree Assistance Program

Through the Tree Assistance Program, USDA is providing Florida—the area of highest immediate need—with additional support to combat HLB. Other citrus-growing states could be eligible for similar support in the future.

Because HLB damages and then kills citrus trees over time, USDA has expanded the Tree Assistance Program to allow Florida producers to remove and replace trees as they decline. Previously, to receive program assistance, all citrus tree deaths had to occur in one year. Now, farmers can receive support as trees decline/die over a period of up to six years.

Florida citrus growers will be eligible for up to 50 percent of the cost of the removal of diseased trees and site preparation, 65 percent of the cost of replanting and labor, and 65 percent of the cost of seedlings. Losses must have occurred on or after Oct. 1, 2011, and individual stands must have sustained a mortality loss of 15 percent after adjustment for normal mortality.

Similar tree replacement programs are being prepared by USDA for other states hit hard by the disease, including Texas. In 2011, when the disease was first discovered in South Texas, it was limited to two small areas south of San Juan. Now 1,000 trees or more are positive for greening throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and because of a latency period of two years before a tree shows symptoms, many more infected trees than expected may be out there, say officials.

The fight against HLB and the ACP that vectors the disease is but one example of the importance of providing an adequate federal agricultural research center on the Texas-Mexico border; indeed, it should have been enough to prevent the center from closing in the first place.

But plant health officials in South Texas say the first step in finding support to meet the growing needs of food biosecurity is by making elected officials more aware of the dangers and threats.

The congressmen both said the tour taught them a lot about agricultural research.

“It’s been very productive to bring the ranking member of the agricultural committee here today,” Vela said. “I think the public needs to understand how important it is to continue funding research, and that almost the entire citrus industry of Florida got hurt so badly. We need to make sure that we continue to fund that research so that the same thing doesn’t happen to Texas.”

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