The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) constantly surveils the 71,500 hectares of seeded orange, tangerine, lime, lemon and grapefruit in the country to prevent the arrival of Huanglongbing (HLB), a pest that has already reduced the production of citrus in Florida, USA, by 50 percent.

Yong Ping Duan, an American expert in the HLB, said that all the citrus groves in Florida were infected and that the citrus industry had lost $4 billion dollars and 8,000 jobs last year.

Although the insect that transmits the disease was detected in Tolima, Colombia, seven years ago, so far there is no evidence that plantations are infected. The ICA works to keep the bacterium from reaching its final development, characterized by rapid spread.

Luis Humberto Martinez, manager of ICA, estimated that there were nearly 3,500 citrus growers in 26 departments in the country to whom he had pledged to maintain a constant accompaniment to avoid infection. "We've been working with growers for seven years and have been able to maintain a favourable status, keeping it will depend on the joint work we do."

Next year, the government will allocate $1,200 million pesos to implement prevention programs for the HLB; according to Martinez, the investment could be higher.

Emilio Arevalo, head of ICA's Epidemiology department, the desire to prevent the arrival of this disease is not unique to Colombia, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers the HLB to be one of the most devastating diseases for the citrus production in the world and because there is no treatment to eradicate it so far.

The officials acknowledged that the HLB is unavoidable. "The entire health protection program of the countries that are free from it (like Colombia) is to take preventive measures to delay the entry of the disease because, seeing the evolution it has had in the continent, it is going to arrive to the country."

An additional concern in the Colombian case involves the detection of the Candidatus Liberibacter caribbeanus bacterium, which apparently would be associated with the organisms that cause HLB in the world.

Adriana Castaneda, technical director of ICA's Analysis department said the discovery had been made last year in the department of Cordoba and that researchers were trying to establish how infectious the bacterium was.

So far, $600,000 dollars have been allocated to this end and the findings are not over.

The studies conducted by the ICA were focused in Cordoba, the Coffee area and Tolima. Professionals from the ICA are currently conducting the research, but they hope to link researchers from Corpoica, the National University and the Andes University to the study.

The disease was discovered in Asia and it was first detected in the American continent in Brazil in 2004. It is also present in Costa Rica and Colombian authorities know that the bug that transmits it is in the country since 2007. Besides citrus, the HLB affects some ornamental species such as the Indian orange blossom or myrtle. The US government, through the Office of Agricultural Affairs is supporting preventive activities against the HLB in Colombia.

In short, the Colombian authorities are aware of the latent threat posed by the fungus, which is why the ICA implements measures with producers to prevent any spread that could affect the country.