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Experts discuss the future of the citrus industry in Taipei


In a joint effort to stem the spreading Citrus Huanglongbing (HLB) epidemic that has plagued orange farmers in the Asia-Pacific region, the Council of Agriculture (COA) partnered up with agricultural agencies from neighboring nations and held a two-day international seminar on Nov. 6-8, 2012. Titled "Sustainable Citrus Growth in Asia and HLB Disease Prevention Management," the event was funded by a Taiwan-U.S. agricultural cooperative program and took place at the National Taiwan University's Socrates Chamber. Spearheaded by the Taipei-based Food and Fertilizer Technology Center (FFTC) for the Asian and Pacific Region, the seminar attracted representatives from 16 countries who exchanged information on disease-fighting techniques and drafted measures on supporting sustainable practices in the citrus industry.

According to the COA, Taiwan devotes a considerable portion of farmland towards growing the fruit that is ranked among the world's top four in terms of total consumption. Although the species is adaptive to a wide range of climates, the fruit tree is highly susceptible to pest damage and viral infections. As the majority of citrus species reproduce asexually, diseases like the HLB are easily passed onto saplings and grafted branches. Also known as the Citrus Greening Disease, the HLB bacteria stunts plant growth, scales back production and deforms the fruit, all of which ruin the economic value of citrus trees. Most importantly, there is no viable cure to this date, meaning that once infected, the tree will die.

The first recorded incident of mass HLB infection was in China's Huanan County, just east of Heilongjiang Province, during the year 1925. When Taiwan fell prey to the contagious bug in 1951, it was a dark year for orange farmers, for roughly one-third of the nation's citrus orchards was lost in the plague. Today, far from losing its vicious momentum, the HLB tree disease has instead hijacked entire continents, invading as far as Central and North America via its insectile host, the Asian Citrus Psyllid.

The Taipei-based research institute FFTC has long enjoyed reputation as an expert on HLB containment and extermination, having arranged for local disease experts to provide technical assistance to HLB-plagued Southeast Asian nations in the past. Taiwan also pioneered several innovative solutions to ward off infestation, including a hot-water treatment that helps to sanitize seedlings, micro-propagation and shoot-tip grafting techniques to lower transmission rates as well as a nationwide screening system to virus-index citrus plantlets. In addition, the FFTC branch in Chiayi County is responsible for producing disease-free citrus scions, tallying an average of 20,000 splice grafts per year that are used to resupply the nation's orchards.

More than a hundred delegates from 16 nations around the world, including Australia, Cambodia, Honduras, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Panama, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam and Taiwan, attended the two-day seminar. With presentations from 21 lecturers and 14 observers on standby, "Sustainable Citrus Growth in Asia and HLB Disease Prevention Management" encompassed a wide range of activities, including dissertation reports and evaluation, national policy reviews, group discussions and feedback as well as technical and personal exchanges. The COA also organized a post-conference tour that took the foreign delegates to Taichung's Shigang District, Yunlin County and Chiayi County for two days and one night, where they witnessed first-handedly the heart of Taiwan's citrus productions. All in all, the brimming orange orchards and the humming fruit-packaging factories served as the perfect backdrop for the multi-national group and their efforts in securing a sustainable future for the beloved citrus fruit.