WASHINGTON, July 20, 2016 - U.S. citrus growers are already beset by numerous pests and diseases, and the last thing they want is a new threat to their groves. That’s why so many are alarmed at what they say is a rush job by USDA to allow lemons from Northwest Argentina into the country.

Earlier this month USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that it would add 30 days to the public comment period on its plan to allow imports of Argentine lemons, but that action fell far short of what some of the biggest names in the citrus industry are calling for.

Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, for example, says Argentine lemons may spread pests that carry diseases like citrus black spot and that APHIS, at a minimum, needs to visit Argentina again before it lifts its ban.

Citrus growers are extremely sensitive to any potential pest threats, Nelson said in an interview. Florida citrus groves have already been devastated by the Huanglongbing, or HLB, bacteria, which causes citrus greening, and California growers are spending millions of dollars every year to guard against it.

Nelson, who called the proposal a gift to Argentina’s new President Mauricio Macri from the Obama administration – it was first announced in May, two months after President Barack Obama visited Buenos Aires in March – said the last risk assessment done by APHIS on Argentine lemons was nearly a decade ago and there’s no assurance that Argentine lemons are safe.

It’s a common complaint in the feedback APHIS has received this year.

“Nine years ago, California was not facing the industry-threatening HLB disease,” wrote Glenn Miller, a manager for the Saticoy Lemon Association in California. “Why should we expect Argentina’s pest and disease pressures are the same now as when the last site visit was conducted in 2007? We need to know more about Argentina’s production practices, pests and disease risks before we let their growers ship to the U.S.”

Russell Hanlin, president and CEO of Sunkist Growers, and Al Bates, president of Sun Pacific Farming and Shippers, both said that the APHIS proposal is just too dangerous.

“Domestic citrus farmers and the federal government spend millions of dollars to eradicate destructive pests and diseases from production areas,” Hanlin said. “Issuing a proposed rule based on data that are nearly a decade old is scientifically questionable and puts farmers at risk of the introduction of a pest or disease.”

APHIS did publish a risk assessment in August 2015, but it was based primarily on a 2007 assessment that included later additions from the Argentine government and elsewhere. Both the 2007 and 2015 documents share the same name: Risk Assessment for the Importation of Fresh Lemon … Fruit from Northwest Argentina into the Continental United States.

APHIS stressed in its proposed rule that there are multiple layers of defenses in place to prevent disease-spreading pests from reaching the U.S. in shipments of lemons from Argentina. The fruit must be disinfected and inspected by Argentine officials before it leaves the country, and exports need to be accompanied by certifications.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who represents the second largest lemon-producing state behind California, also chimed in on the debate by stressing the risk of allowing in imported Argentine lemons.

“The Arizona citrus industry is already in a battle to prevent the spread of multiple pests and bacteria that are fatal to citrus trees,” McCain said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Many of these pests were introduced to the United States from other countries and continents.”

But not all lawmakers see it that way. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said the availability of Argentine lemons would be a boon for importers, distributors, restaurants, supermarkets, and consumers.

APHIS has promised to conduct another visit to Northwest Argentina – the country’s largest citrus region – but that’s not good enough, said Miller.

“A new site visit should not come after the comment period is closed and a proposed rule is issued,” he said. “Having a site visit following a proposed rule implies the rule is going forward without presenting all the facts to the public and regardless of public input.”

But APHIS’s risk assessment isn’t the only thing that the U.S. citrus industry is challenging. The USDA agency also conducted a study on what the economic impact would be of allowing in lemons from the world’s largest producer.

APHIS concluded that Argentina was likely only to export 15,000 to 18,000 tons of lemons to the U.S. annually, and that would likely cost the U.S. industry between $11 million and $22 million due to declines in market prices caused by increased supplies.

California Citrus Mutual is vigorously contesting that conclusion, Nelson told Agri-Pulse. “It’s ludicrous and we’re going to tear it apart,” he said.

The U.S. is an attractive market for Argentina, and the country’s fruit will be in direct competition with the U.S. crop, he said.

California Citrus Mutual has contracted researchers to produce a separate economic impact assessment.

Argentina produced 1.5 million tons of lemons last year and exported about 15 percent, or about 230,000 tons, according to an estimate this month by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

While Argentina can’t export to the U.S., countries like Mexico, Chile and Spain can. And the shipments from those countries are growing rapidly, according to a California Citrus Mutual report produced with USDA data. Last year, Chile doubled its lemon exports to the U.S., while Spain’s exports tripled and Mexico’s shipments increased by 45 percent.

But more lemons is good news for consumers and companies like Cargill, Van Yeutter, the company’s vice president of corporate affairs, said in a recent letter to APHIS.

“Lemon consumption growth in the United States has been outpacing production and the country has turned to imports to supplement its domestic supply,” he wrote. “Opening up trade will benefit U.S. consumers with an extended availability of high quality products at a time of limited supply.”


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