Are Chinese Citrus Imports a Major Threat to Florida’s Agricultural Community?

The recent federal decision to authorize the import of certain citrus fruits from China has garnered significant attention since its announcement in April.  More so in an ongoing pandemic situation across the world, this came as a major shock to the indigenous farmers and authorities in Florida. While there have been neutral remarks by California industry representatives who do not foresee any formidable impact on the fresh produce markets owing to the smaller volumes of import, Florida seems to differ on the opinion.

What’s the USDA decision regarding citrus imports?

Towards mid-April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized the import of five commercial citrus fruits from China. Chinese pomelos, Nanfeng tangerines, Ponkan tangerines, sweet oranges, and Wenzhou tangerines are the five varieties of citrus fruits that can now be imported into the U.S following systematic plant pest screening. The decision comes after the federal scientists reinstate that these five varieties can be safely imported given the farmers, packers, and shippers use a systematic approach to minimize pest risks.

Following the announcement US Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott penned a letter to Sonny Perdue, the USDA Secretary to reconsider his decision

Following the announcement US Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott penned a letter to Sonny Perdue, the USDA Secretary to reconsider his decision of importing these varieties that may be detrimental to the current scenario of Citrus trade in Florida. The impacts could be manifold pertaining to the safety of these produces in the aftermath of a pandemic.

Why are these five fruits such a cause of concern?

The four main things to know here are:

  1. The dwindling Citrus Industry of Florida.

Firstly, the sorry state of Florida’s Citrus industry over the past decade has been a major concern for the agricultural community as well as industry experts. The reasons for such a downward spiral are hurricanes, unfair pricing of imports, and citrus greening. Mike Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, stated,

We need to take another look at this decision. Add to the fact it will hurt growers by flooding domestic markets with Chinese citrus and it really is a double whammy.

At a time when the indigenous growers are facing a steep challenge with the ongoing economic crisis, this move seems to come as a severe blow to the agricultural community in Florida.

  1. Citrus Greening

Citrus Greening or Huanglongbing, HLB, a disease that originated in China and entered the U.S. through imported citrus is a serious cause of concern. The disease primarily affects the growth of the plants and produces asymmetrical and stunted fruits with thick yellowing peel and a bitter taste. Citrus Greening has been majorly responsible for the dwindling citrus fruit production in the US and many other countries around the world.

  1. Potential invasive pest and disease threats.

Especially in the aftermath of the pandemic engrossing the world, there is a potential invasive threat of pests and diseases. While Florida industry representative Dan Richey finds the agreement of the country to import Chines citrus fruits close to lunacy, he emphasized the likely threats new imports could introduce to the nation. He stated

I am much more concerned with the invasive pest and disease risk, not only with the fruit but with pallets the fruit is shipped on. We are required to use heat-treated pallets to ensure no wood-boring insects are hitchhiking in the pallets. Again, the Chinese cannot be trusted to adhere to this rule and who knows what may arrive in these pallets and on our shores?

  1. Adherence to the Systematic Approach of Imports

Lastly, the USDA supported the decision based on the prerogative that if a systematic approach is adhered to in importing these fruits, then there is absolutely no cause of concern. But the question is who is to guarantee that such a systematic approach is being strictly followed?

This systematic approach demands that the growers, packers and shippers implement a methodical approach that minimizes the risk of pests. Limiting imports to commercial shipments alone, registering production sites & packaging plants, certifying the safety of the imports and that they are devoid of any pests or infections, regular inspection and sanitization of the production sites and proper disposal of waste. While these seem the best practices that must be followed to ensure safe consumption, Richey remarked, “If we think for one minute that China will hold their grower/packers to the standards required of a systems approach, we are fools.”

While the apparent impact of the imports on the market is believed to be small, the threat of introducing invasive varieties to the region is real and the subsequent adverse impact on the agricultural community cannot be overlooked. The decision seems to be ill-timed and irresponsible given what the industry has faced in the last decade as well as on account of the ongoing economic crisis.