Op-Ed in North County Times: A death sentence for San Diego citrus trees?

By Bill Horn and Ted Batkin

No more backyard citrus trees in San Diego.

While this statement may seem as far-fetched as Americans agreeing on a presidential candidate, it is a grim possibility. Earlier this year, the citrus industry's worst fear came true. For the first time in California, a citrus tree infected with a deadly citrus disease called Huanglongbing (HLB) was found in a Los Angeles-area backyard. 

A tiny pest called the Asian citrus psyllid is the carrier of HLB. Although both the pest and HLB are not harmful to humans or pets, there is no cure for HLB. 

If infected, your citrus tree will die. 

On Aug. 8, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to formally support the agricultural commissioner's authority to remove any HLB-infected trees and orchards ---- the only known method of eliminating the disease. 

HLB taking hold could mean the end of the backyard citrus we all love, and San Diego residents need to be on high alert. 

As reported in the North County Times, the psyllid has made its way into Fallbrook and Valley Center. If HLB makes its way into the county, San Diego's $78.5 million citrus industry and 2,250 jobs are at risk. 

A recent University of Florida study indicated the Florida economy has suffered an estimated $3.63 billion in lost revenue and 6,611 lost jobs due to this pest and disease. If we don't contain the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid and HLB, the damage in Florida could be mirrored in California. 

The best way to protect against HLB is to control the spread of the psyllid. Industry and government leaders are aggressively working to do this. 

The county Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures has an expansive pest-detection program that monitors more than 9,000 bug traps in residential trees, and two detector-dog teams inspect more than 10,000 packages at points of entry into San Diego. Additionally, the grower-funded Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program tests psyllids found on traps. In 2011, 4,704 plant samples and 12,672 insect samples were tested. 

Even so, the ultimate solution lies with the residents who treasure their backyard citrus. Here is how San Diegans can protect their citrus trees:

• Inspect citrus trees for the Asian citrus psyllid and HLB each month or whenever watering, spraying, pruning or tending trees.
• Buy citrus trees only from reputable, licensed retail nurseries.
• Avoid bringing any plant material into San Diego from other states or countries.
• Dry or double-bag plant clippings prior to disposal.
• Cooperate with agriculture officials on pest detection and treatment.
• Only use registered budwood with source documentation.
• If any suspicious bugs or HLB symptoms are found, call the California Department of Food and Agriculture hotline at 800-491-1899. Pictures and more information can be found at www.californiacitrusthreat.org

This fight is not a lost cause, but we need the help of residents. Having consensus on a presidential candidate may not be feasible, but we can all agree that saving our citrus is a cause worth fighting for. 

BILL HORN is a San Diego County supervisor for the 5th District and an avocado grower in Valley Center.

TED BATKIN is the president and CEO of the Citrus Research Board in Visalia.