Column: Can California avert a citrus apocalypse?
I don’t usually just wave agents of the state into my house. But when a nice lady from the California Department of Food and Agriculture showed up at my door last week, I welcomed her with a genuine smile.
“You’re here for the psyllids, right?” I asked, as two masked men on the street waited for her orders. “Come on in!”
The crew spread through my garden to look at all the citrus trees. I’ve got 12, including a dwarf kumquat, a blooming calamansi, and a towering Thai lime that grows among roses. My grandpa was an orange picker, so tending to my own oranges, lemons and limes is a birthright and joy. Few things make me happier than to see these fruit trees peek out of front and back yards around town, heavy with fruit or fragrant with blossoms.
They’re a gorgeous, delicious reminder of the Southern California dream. So of course they’re endangered.
The threat is the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that infects trees with a bacteria that causes citrus greening disease. It’s the Lou Gehrig’s disease of the genus: Young leaves quickly atrophy. There is no cure. Most infected trees die within a few years. The disease was first spotted in the U.S. in 2005 in Florida. Who knew the Sunshine State could offer us something worse than Marco Rubio?
Scientists, farmers and county agricultural commissioners across California have fought this little bug for years, but admit they’re losing. The pest is all across the Southland, has migrated down to Baja, and has recently crept up to the Sierra counties.
The Asian citrus psyllid is a reminder of how many of our problems are self-inflicted.
As my trees got sprayed with pesticide as a preventative measure, I thought about this Sisyphean effort to save our citrus. A pest smaller than a rice grain is wreaking havoc on an iconic part of Southern California. How much of our life here is equally precarious, reliant on foundations that can quickly fail?
Our water supply depends on a shrinking snowpack, antiquated aqueducts and reservoirs, and a Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta constantly under attack from brackish waters. Hackers can easily disrupt our electrical grid. The top-two primary fosters further partisanship.
The Asian citrus psyllid is also a reminder of how many of our problems are self-inflicted. The bug spread because people transported infected trees or cuttings, ignoring longstanding state quarantines. Even lay gardeners know when something’s wrong with their trees. But instead of calling the state pest hotline, too many people just shrugged it off. Now the insect has been detected in over 20 counties and the disease it carries in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties — and those are just confirmed cases.
Our apathy extends beyond our back yards and carries over to current-day tragedies we face, like homelessness and the spread of opioids. These and others could’ve been mitigated before they became full-blown crises if only more people paid attention. For instance, affordable housing? Los Angeles could’ve spent the nearly $400 million it got since 2011 when redevelopment agencies were dissolved on affordable housing, but instead chose it to put toward public employees.
Yet the response to our potential citrus apocalypse also shows us how California can respond to crises. The state agriculture department has aggressively combated the menace; it left letters throughout my neighborhood asking for permission to inspect and treat any citrus for free. My editor told me that the agency responded within 45 minutes when she emailed a photo of her lemon tree’s curling leaves, diagnosing Asian leaf miner, a different non-tree-killing species.
“It was absolutely the most efficient interaction I have ever had with a state agency,” she said.
Imagine if all bureaucrats reacted as quickly to all issues? Imagine if people were as proactive as myself and my jefa? If enough of us joined the fight, we could slow the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid, giving scientists more time to find a silver bullet.
We can deal with even bigger California issues if we’d just respond collectively with some urgency. We can manage recurring droughts if we all conserve water and improve its infrastructure. We can alleviate our housing crisis by accepting the fact that we can’t sprawl outward forever and by holding irresponsible developers and landlords in check. We can improve public education by making sure our schools are funded but by also involving ourselves with students as tutors, mentors, and more. With a proactive government and an engaged populace we can take on all of the state’s pressing problems and actually beat them.
The psyllid inspection and treatment took no more than 15 minutes. The lead woman thanked me, and gave me a yellow slip. “By allowing CDFA to perform emergency treatment of citrus trees on your property,” it read, “you have made a huge contribution to the suppression of this invasive pest.”
In a historically individualistic state, the Asian citrus psyllid is a test of whether we can collectively fight for our future. Are we going to let some loser bug decimate our citrus? Will we let the state’s other problems continue to fester? Together, we can win; apart, kiss our orange blossoms and our state adios.
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