A Letter to the Editor from Bill Castle: HLB Dialog Needed

Tacy Callies Citrus, Florida

Bill Castle

Bill Castle

A Letter to the Editor, Citrus Industry magazine

By Bill Castle, University of Florida professor emeritus

“Desperate times require desperate measures” is a quote from no less a person than Hippocrates. With regard to the citrus industry, HLB and 74 million boxes, are these desperate times? I think most people would agree. Looking around our industry, virtually everyone is engaged in the HLB battle at some level.

Since the beginning, our pattern of learning and progression regarding HLB management has been steady, but characterized by advances with intervening quiet periods. Those quiet periods are useful. They function as a time when advances are field tested by growers. They are a time to gather thoughts, re-establish the big picture and raise questions. They should be periods of reflection and assessment.

I think we are in a quiet period now. This is a good time to assess. However, the approach needs to be different. We need dialog. “Dialog” is not just talking, though. It is a word with a particular meaning: “an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue … with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.” True dialog requires suspending certainty.

Back in the blight era, there was a task force that regularly held public meetings at which basically anyone could present their research, views or observations. It was a bit of a free-for-all, but at least there was a forum for ideas and exchange, even argument. Are we dialoging on HLB?

Here is one instance of a dialog that led to a Citrus Expo presentation. In conversation about the citrus health management areas (CHMA) program, the question came up about psyllid counts. The numbers are low in some areas and not so low in other CHMAs. So what? Do the counts mean anything? Brandon Page, CHMA manager, and Dr. Ariel Singerman, Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) economist, teamed up to present an analysis at Citrus Expo this year indicating that the answer apparently was “yes.” Yield was affected.

What are desperate measures? In my opinion, they represent out-of-the-box thinking and particular pursuits. One day, I listened to a National Public Radio interview with the scientist who oversaw the DNA sequencing of the human genome. He forcefully stated that the outcome was achieved because of the collaboration of scientists from a broad range of disciplines. They were all focused on the mission. Are we talking across disciplines on HLB? Perhaps more important, who is observing and fomenting such collaboration?

Sponsored research has accelerated the pace leading to results. However, has there been regular industry-wide dialog based on periodic integration, summary and interpretation of the information that is available to all growers? No, at least not in a manner that meets the definition of dialog above.

In talking with growers, it is also clear that considerable frustration exists because of the lack of information availability. Once a year, growers should be able to participate in a dialog to see, understand and assess the big picture. Who is doing that? Are there IFAS guidelines for HLB management? Even though such guidelines could get complicated quickly, should there be something? Distillation of information is missing. Are we satisfied with bits and pieces?

And, a critical component is what do growers know? I think there is a huge amount of valuable information in the grower pool of knowledge waiting to be gathered. Are IFAS and research sponsors collecting anecdotal information about successes and failures of HLB grower programs? If so, are they collating that information and making it available to a wider group? Perhaps the issue is that the information is anecdotal, not hard-core science. Anecdotal information is still valuable. Collecting anecdotal information is a valid measure!

Very little dialoging has occurred on major (controversial?) issues like nutrition. So far, there have been some industry-wide meetings (not dialogs) with a single major issue like nutrition as the theme. Aren’t we ready, for example, to have one on psyllids in which everything we’ve learned so far about their dynamics, etc. is presented? Do you know what psyllids do on Cleo seedlings? Is it true that psyllids don’t like to feed on plants grown on high levels of boron? Can the biochemistry of the young leaf be altered to largely prevent psyllid feeding? Do you have your own observations and/or questions? Dialogs on these kinds of questions are needed. The excellent attendance at the recent meeting on nutrition hosted by Dr. Tripti Vashisth, CREC horticulturist, speaks for itself.

The amount of research data and anecdotal information has become large, perhaps unwieldy. There is a substantial need to put it out there for review toward understanding the current big picture. It is wise to periodically step back and ask the tough questions. Desperate times require desperate measures. Is a better means of curating anecdotal along with scientific information needed? If that is true, we should be committed to considering all possible approaches, large or small, scientific or anecdotal, to managing HLB.

Let’s dialog.