Should Citrus Farmers Use Antibiotics to Combat Greening Disease?

By Maryn McKenna at National Geographic

When you hear about antibiotic use in agriculture it is almost always about the kind of routine everyday use in livestock that the Food and Drug Administration is trying to eliminate. But there’s another type of antibiotic use in agriculture. It may be less known, but it’s poised to generate just as much controversy: spraying the drugs on citrus trees.

Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for permission to spray 2.23 million pounds of antibiotics on its orange groves as a protection against a devastating disease. But the drugs the state is asking to use are also important human antibiotics, so campaigners concerned about the spread of antibiotic resistance are asking the EPA to block the proposal. Florida believes that its citrus industry is at stake, so the stage is set for a fight.

The looming fight over produce antibiotics is pretty different from the long-standing fight over livestock antibiotics. In meat animals, the drugs were first used to make animals put on weight faster, and subsequently to prevent diseases that spread in crowded barns and feedlots. According to the FDA , livestock gets about 33.86 million pounds of antibiotics per year.

In Florida, if approved, the drugs will be used to treat an existing disease, a bacterial infection called huanglongbing, also known as “citrus greening.” (Citrus greening is spread by a tiny insect called the Asian citrus psyllid.) But it won’t, strictly speaking, cure the infection, though it will help the trees to survive longer.

In one way, though, livestock use and citrus use would be similar: They would both use many times more antibiotics than are used in human medicine. One set of comments to the EPA, made by the nonprofit coalition Keep Antibiotics Working, estimates the state is asking to use four times as much oxytetracycline and 36 times as much streptomycin as are used in U.S. patients each year. Advocates worry that such high doses may increase the risk that the drugs will stop working in humans—the fear that lies behind objections to livestock antibiotics.

“Obviously this is a big problem for the citrus industry,” says Steve Roach, who is food safety program director for the Food Animal Concerns Trust, a Chicago-based nonprofit that belongs to the coalition. “But we are really concerned that they are asking to adopt routine antibiotic use, where they will pretty much have to be regularly spraying the whole industry. These are exactly the conditions we have been fighting against in animal agriculture: industry-wide use of antibiotics on a regular basis.”

In its 59-page request—technically, a petition for an emergency exemption from Section 18 of a law called the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)—the Florida department says that other attempts to combat the disease since it arrived in the state a decade ago have failed.

“Between 2004 and 2014, the amount of Florida land planted with citrus shrunk by nearly one-third, from 748,555 acres down to 515,147 acres,” Adam Putnam, the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, says in the petition. “During that same timeframe, overall citrus production in the state dropped from 292 million boxes of fruit down to 124 million boxes (a 58 percent reduction). Average orange yields sunk from 428 boxes per acre in 2004 down to 250 boxes an acre in 2014 (a 42 percent reduction), despite the higher-density new plantings of orange trees, almost solely resulting from HLB infection.”

Read more of this story…at National Geographic

Photo By Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom via Wikimedia Commons