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Virus threatens Jamaican citrus exports
The Packer / December 23, 1996

By Larry Luxner

In the last 13 years, Jamaican farmers have more than doubled the amount of land devoted to citrus production, from 12,500 acres in 1983 to 26,500 acres today. But now, exporters fear their industry could be wiped out by the tristeza virus and other pests that have already destroyed orange trees from Brazil to Barbados.

Last month, the Jamaica Citrus Growers Association launched a massive replanting program with $276,000 in funding from the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Percy Miller of the JCGA calls that "just a tiny drop in the bucket, just enough to appraise ourselves of the size of the problem."

In the 12 months ending Jun. 30, 1995, said Miller, the organization's manager of field operations, Jamaica produced 4.06 million 90-pound boxes of citrus valued at US$38 million. The biggest portion of that was 3.33 million boxes of sweet oranges, of which 10% was exported. Jamaica also packed 250,000 crates of grapefruit, of which 37,500 boxes (or 15%) was shipped abroad.

In addition, the country produced 270,000 boxes of ortanique -- a uniquely Jamaican hybrid fruit -- and exported 108,000 boxes, or half of that total. Growers also exported 210,000 boxes of ugli -- a cross between an orange and a tangerine that peels easily and is about twice the size of a normal orange. All told, roughly 70% of Jamaica's US$5.2 million in citrus exports go to the United Kingdom; the remaining 30% is sent to the United States, Canada and neighboring Caribbean islands.

Yet according to industry experts, the combination of the tristeza virus and the brown citrus aphid, which transmits the virus, could easily render Jamaica's citrus industry non-existent within 10 years -- endangering the livelihoods of the island's 2,000 citrus farmers and their 20,000 or so employees. That's where the FAO's 15-month Citrus Production and Certification Project, a short-term action plan, comes in.

"The project is now being put together, and the steering committee has been formed," Miller told The Packer in a phone interview from Kingston. "As elsewhere in the world, 95% of our commercial citrus is established on sour orange rootstock. All such citrus is susceptible to tristeza, so eventually -- whether we succeed or not -- all our citrus will die over the next 10 years. So the job is to re-establish our citrus on resistant rootstock, replacing the entire acreage with resistant varieties."

Adds David Bowen, the FAO's representative in Jamaica: "I am pleased that the project is now getting off the ground and would be fully operational by January 1997." Bowen, whose agency will help Jamaica strengthen and improve plant health certification schemes among farmers, says international consultants will be coming to the island to work along with their local counterparts to see how best to approach eradication.

Infestation of citrus trees by the tristeza virus has been retarding citrus yield and threatening the future viability of Jamaica's citrus industry for several years. First discovered there in 1991, the virus prevents the flow of nutrients from the leaf to the root of the plant, eventually killing it.

"When the virus was discovered here and we learned that the citrus aphid was well-established in South America and was moving north, we were concerned," Phillip Clarke, coordinator of the program, told IPS news service. "The Jamaica Citrus Association appealed to the government who in turn appealed to FAO for a project which will prepare the industry for any devastation."

According to Miller, "Cuba is way ahead of us [in fighting tristeza and] they already have their program up and running." Other large Caribbean citrus producers are Belize, Trinidad & Tobago and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, Jamaican producers are looking to other export crops such as papaya, which currently has under 1,000 acres in cultivation.

"Papaya offers Jamaica the greatest potential at this point in time," said Lennox Picart, assistant vice-president of the agribusiness division at Jampro, the nation's overseas investment agency. "We are the market leaders in both the U.K. and Canada, and we have instituted and have successfully initiated a vigorous papaya program in Jamaica."

In 1995, Jamaica exported 4,382 metric tons of papayas worth US$6.7 million -- a jump from the 3,621 tons worth US$4.8 million exported in 1994 and the 3,600 tons worth US$3.4 million exported in 1993.

Picart added that mangoes are an important crop along Jamaica's dry southern coast, where the Tommy Atkins variety is prevalent. In 1995, according to Jampro figures, the island exported 1,195 tons of mangoes worth US$1.1 million, up from the 784 tons worth $675,000 in 1993.

"We still export mangoes, although the interest in mangoes is dwindling because of oversupply in the world, and the fact that we're not competitive in mangoes anymore," said Picart, adding that "our mangoes are banned in the United States because of the fruit fly perception that Jamaica has fruit fly problem. But there's no restrictions in exporting to the U.K. or Canada."

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