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Cankerous Interests and Trade Laws: When Will We Stop the Cankercaust?

by William Marina

Thanks to Jeremy Sapieza for his pieces in on the Florida citrus canker war. Iíd like to expand on them. While cutting down hundreds of thousands of healthy trees in another of its "preventative" efforts, the State refuses to admit that even the "experts" are at odds about a solution to the canker problem. God forbid even a cursory study of the problem be undertaken! Governments, and Al Gore in particular, are always against wood producers cutting in our "virgin" forests, but when Government undertakes a "first-strike" cut to protect us, thatís OK.

The Miami Herald of Sunday, October 29th, in an article by Martin Merzer, had a particularly good account of the "war" in Dade and Broward counties, where the trees were being cut at the rate of 5,000 a day last week, in the face of complaints that had reached almost 50,000 at that point in time.

As The Herald noted:

A federal and state study that triggered this yearís expansion of the killing zone from 125 feet to 1,900 feet has not yet been published or publicly reviewed by independent scientists, and several outside experts say the tree-cutting blitz is out of control.

"This disease is not severe enough to justify this attempt at eradication," said Jack Whiteside, a citrus specialist and retired plant pathologist for the University of Florida.

He said canker usually produces only cosmetic blemishes in fruit and leaves. In severe cases, it can cause unripened fruit to drop from trees, he said, but it cannot produce gnarled branches and dying trees as claimed by Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford and some other state officials.


Cankerís symptoms often are so subtle, Whiteside said, that the disease can maintain a low profile for months or years before it reappears on a large scale, regardless of eradication programs. He said canker has ebbed and flowed in Florida since 1914.

"In practice, it is virtually impossible to eradicate any pathogen that produces such mild symptoms," he said.

Several scientists, most of them retired and no longer dependent on state or federal salaries or grants, told The Herald they agreed.

"Every citrus-producing country in the world thatís humid has this disease," said Heinz Wutscher, a retired horticulturist who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 32 years. "There are definitely problems with it, but itís not the kind of thing you want to spend $120 million on and destroy millions of trees."

Actually, the total cost is $175 million, and much of that is going to the three main contractors who get paid $96.25 for every slashed tree: Manny Diaz Farms, Asplundh and Ashbritt.

Whiteside said other experts, some still in state government, agree with him but are being muzzled because their bosses have close links to the citrus industry. Crawford, the agriculture commissioner, once managed a 3,200-acre cattle and citrus operation in Central Florida.

"People who are depending on their jobs cannot speak out on this issue," Whiteside said.

Not true, said Tim Schubert, chief plant pathologist at the stateís Division of Plant Industry and a leading state expert on canker.

"I donít know of anyone who is suppressing their opinion about whether this disease should be the target of eradication," Schubert said. "Weíve been in contact with virtually every plant pathologist with knowledge of this problem."

He does agree with Whiteside on this: Canker is rarely fatal to a tree.

"Iíve seen it kill some small seedlings," Schubert said. "But in general, it will not kill a tree."

So what we have here, as detailed by The Herald, is a multitude of "sins" that come from Government Interventionism!

  1. The Federal and State studies have not been shared with the scientific community.
  2. A number of scientists disagree that the disease is severe enough to justify this effort at total eradication. Most often its effects are cosmetic, some fruit dropping, but not severe gnarling or death.
  3. Canker is world wide, and probably cannot be eradicated even at a cost in Florida already approaching $200 million.

I would also add several observations suggested at by the article, and one that is not:

  1. The large firms getting almost $100 to cut a tree are among those always cueing up for Government funds. Thatís not a bad payoff, given the magnitude of this job.
  2. One firm, Manny Diaz Farms, while it has donated trees to universities such as my own, Florida Atlantic University, was caught selling undersized palms to Dade County involving millions of $$ and is now in the indictment process. It is part of a larger complex of construction and other firms that have "fed" off the County and the City of Miami and have helped to create South Floridaís reputation as "Corruption Central," where many people have come to feel "honest politician" is a contradiction in terms. That Diaz Farms should have been allowed into the bid process and then selected is beyond belief!
  3. Government researchers, especially at universities, who understand where their money is coming had better keep their mouths shut about "real" research results. Anyone who follows the news, or has attended or taught in universities as I have now for 45 years, cannot but help to be aware of this situation. While not yet at the level of the National Socialists or the former Union, it is beyond that of Ancient Rome where Lucian described how the intellectuals were "bought" by Caesar, and even given Chairs of "higher learning."
  4. What we know about Nature is that it has a way of coping with such diseases, whether in animals or plants. Canker seems to been around in Florida at least since before 1914, probably brought here with the citrus trees imported from around the world. Among the hundreds of thousands of trees cut down and killed were a huge number of healthy, but supposedly threatened trees.

Given what we know about the life process of selection, is it unreasonable to assume that many of then healthy, but now dead, trees were among those that had over many years developed some degree of immunity to the worst ravages of canker. Those were among the very trees we ought to be saving and building upon.

Further, if this were such a fatal disease, one would assume plant breeders in nurseries would have for years been breeding in that direction as well as for better fruit, faster growing trees, etc. Certainly, that is how one would expect events to develop in a market situation.

The Real Reason for the Canker War:

The next day, Monday, October 30th, The Herald had an article by Griff Witte entitled, "Trade threat at heart of Floridaís canker fight: Experts downplay real damage to fruit," that offered a truly paradigmatic insight into the issue.

A number of citrus experts understand that the real threat to Floridaís $8.5 billion industry is not how canker affects fruit, but rather "how the bacteria disease affects trade." Jack Hearn, a retired plant geneticist who studied citrus for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 33 years in Florida, said canker-related embargoes are used as "a trade tool more than a disease-control tool."

If Florida were to learn to live with the disease, rather than attempt to eradicate it, states and other countries would have legal grounds to halt Florida citrus from being imported. Further, if canker were allowed, it would open U.S. markets to fresh fruits from many nations that have that "horrible" canker disease.

So, what we really have is trade as a political tool of government, along the lines of the "pork war" against Europe a century ago, or the "beef war" against Argentina later. All of which has now been incorporated into the thousands of pages that make up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which document has about as much relationship to real free trade as a Jackass has to an Elephant!

One expert is pessimistic that eradication will succeed, but that it will now be difficult to stop. Advocates of eradication have painted canker as so "dire" that a "strategy not involving quarantine zones and cutting would make it hard to sell Florida citrus outside the state," to other citrus producing states such as California, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana, and perhaps Europe as well.

If Florida decides to live with canker, it opens the door to freer trade since "there would no longer be any reason to exclude fruit from Brazil or Argentina or Paraguay."

This raises some interesting questions. If canker is so bad that we have kept out the fruit from those nations above, how could their fruit suddenly pose such a competitive threat? If their fruit is not cankerous, then the whole phony issue is another example of Governmentís interference with real free trade.

The experts are even in disagreement as to whether canker really hurts a tree and its fruit or not. Whiteside, the retired UF professor cited above who published several articles on canker in the 1980s, observes: "The rhetoric is that if we donít get rid of it, its going to kill trees. But no one has left tree with canker alone long enough to see what it does. I think we would see it wouldnít do anything."

An expert who disagrees ends up mentioning that the disease would be severe on grapefruit, even though it doesnít change the taste of the fruit. What it appears to do is produce some lesions on the grapefruit that hadnít dropped off the tree, and that might make it less marketable.

Cut free of the whole governmental trade policy issue, one can begin to make a more rational market analysis of what is really involved in the canker issue.

The canker police came to examine my heroic little key line tree that has endured all sorts of calamities. It is still there, and such lime trees are apparently not badly effected by canker. I intend to fight to save my tree, which not only lives, but may have a soul. Who am I to say about such things!

More than 90% of Floridaís oranges goes to juicers, so even under the most dire of circumstances, since taste is not affected, that does not appear to be the real problem None of the so-called experts seem to have mentioned tangerines, tangelos, etc., so perhaps we can assume they also neednít be cut as a part of trying to eradicate the cursed canker in grapefruit.

So the real problem is the grapefruit because it is by far the most susceptible to canker, and almost half of Floridaís crop is sold fresh. While only 14% of world orange production is from Florida, the State because of its climate and up to now absence of canker, produces 40% of the grapefruit. Everybody has oranges, it appears, but not everybody has good grapefruit.

As The Herald concludes:

Critics of the eradication program, though, say that moving from grapefruit to other more resistant kinds of citrus is something Florida will inevitably have to do. They point to countries like Argentina and Brazil that have maintained profitable citrus industries even in the face of canker, and they wonder why Florida canít do the same.

But, they say, they understand why some in Floridaís citrus industry are reluctant: If the state has to produce citrus while fighting canker, it will face increased direct competition from those countries doing the exact same thing.

A Good Long-Range Outcome?

Despite the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent varieties of citrus in the "Cankercaust," which is really about "The Trade Politics of Grapefruit," something good might yet come from all of this.

I believe Florida can compete in world markets for grapefruit and other citrus as have the nations mentioned above. We still have a climate for uniquely good grapefruit.

It is time we devoted our energies to further developing canker resistant citrus rather than cutting down thousands of such potential specimens. Bio-genetics can probably also help in the long run, but the protectionists in Europe and elsewhere will in the short run scream about that threat.

Global trade, however, is not a one-way street. It must mean cutting free of the narrow, mercantilist restrictions which have for so long dogged the emergence and rise of the modern nation-state; not for some but for all.

Why Study Local and State History?

I have dwelt perhaps overly long on what many might perceive a local history, in trying to show this is in reality an issue of international importance.

Nonetheless, the study of local and state history is extremely important for young historians as well as all of us. International events and even comparative civilizations, of course, appear more exotic but there is nothing that happens at that level which cannot be duplicated in the microcosm of our own community.

If were believe that liberty and freedom are inseparable from decentralization, then the place to start is at that most decentralized of units, your own locality. Almost all such issues prepare us for larger ramifications.

November 3, 2000

William Marina is professor of History at the Fort Lauderdale/Davie campus of Florida Atlantic University, and an Adjunct Scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is a "virtual professor" teaching through the Internet and will be teaching such a course on "Freedom and the Evolution of Civilizations" in the Templeton Foundation International Freedom Project at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala next Spring. He can be reached at: Among several books, he is the co-author of the 3rd ed. of A History of Florida (1999), long considered the standard history of the State, He can assure any reader of this piece that a discussion of the "canker wars" will find its way into the 4th edition.

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