Antonio Juliano Ayres

The Challenge Behind Juice

We don’t usually stop to think about the steps the food takes – or the challenges during production – to finally reach our tables. However, for us to enjoy a delicious orange juice, a lot of hard work goes on in the field, especially the fight against an insect that is as small as it is dangerous: the Asian citrus psyllid.

It is this psyllid that spreads greening, a bacterial disease capable of reducing citrus plantation productivity by 80 percent, according to research conducted by Brazilian Citrus Defense Fund (Fundecitrus).

Other figures can give you an idea about the size of the issue. In Florida, the US state with the second largest citrus orchard in the world, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) expects the 2016/17 crop to be the lowest yielding in over 50 years. One of the main reasons for this is precisely greening, which causes the fruit to drop from trees prematurely and affects fruit quality – e.g., smaller size, more acidic and less tasty. In Brazil, a global production leader, the disease is present in almost 17 percent of the orange trees in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. Greening is, undoubtedly, the greatest threat to the global citrus industry.

First discovered in Asia and Africa, greening was spotted in Brazilian orchards in 2004. A year later it was also detected in Florida. Efforts are currently focused to keep the disease from reaching Europe, where the industry has been on high-alert since 2015, when the African psyllid was found in Portugal.

Antonio Juliano Ayres
Antonio Juliano Ayres
Antonio Juliano Ayres
has been the general manager of the Citrus Defense Fund (Fundecitrus) for 20 years. Since 2004, he has been leading research in the institution aimed at controlling citrus diseases and pests in São Paulo, Brazil.

Faced with such an alarming scenario, the importance of initiatives to support growers is of great significance. Since 2013, through a cooperation called “Companies Friends of the Citrus Grower”, a few companies, among them Bayer, are researching new approaches to control greening. Strategically placed traps allow to monitor the psyllid population; the information is fed into a phytosanitary warning system which recommends the best time for insect containment actions. One of these actions is the biological control done with Tamarixia radiata, a wasp that parasites the psyllid. These wasps are developed at a biofactory and released into abandoned or unkempt orchards within São Paulo’s citrus area. By containing the population in non-productive land we aim to help keep commercial plantations from being infected. The biological control laboratory created in partnership with Bayer, turned two years in March 2017, and has released 1,063,593 wasps in 734 properties covering a total area of 4,789 hectares since its inception.

The wasp breeding methodology was developed by researchers at Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ/USP), under the supervision of Professor José Postali Parra. The initiative achieved the elimination of up to 70 percent of the psyllid nymphs in areas where Tamarixia radiata is present. Many Brazilian growers are also now releasing wasps in their orchards as an additional tool in the war against greening. Citrus growers in countries like Mexico and Costa Rica have developed similar actions and there are many more studies and partnerships on the horizon. Fundecitrus’ cooperation with Bayer and Esalq is an inspiration and an example of a successful partnership.

Collaboration is ever more important against the backdrop of worldwide decrease in orange production due to greening. Private and public initiatives are helping growers combat the pest and contribute to salvage the industry. But it is not enough to invest in the development of solutions. We also need to disseminate the knowledge and information to help growers combat this devastating disease. For me personally, it is a responsibility to partner in search of solutions and a privileged to be able to help bring sweet and juicy oranges fresh or squeezed to many houses around the world.

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