LA CRUZ, Guanacaste – It didn’t look like much. Just a plain cardboard box handed off from one official to another in a typical grip-and-grin press conference in the sweltering late-morning heat in the northwestern province Guanacaste.
The contents of the box were equally unimpressive: Little green sticks in plastic bags, each stick dotted with half a dozen buds. The box was a gift from the government of the United States to Costa Rica.
Yet although it looked like a cheap gift from a world superpower, it was priceless – and could someday ensure the future of Costa Rica’s multimillion-dollar citrus export industry.
The little sticks are known as “budwood,” the material that citrus producers graft onto a tree to make it produce a certain kind of fruit– grapefruit, mandarin or navel orange.
With disease ravaging the citrus industries in Florida and Brazil, this budwood has an important characteristic: It is completely disease free.
“It’s extremely hard to maintain this,” said Randolph Fleming, the CEO of orange juice producer Del Oro, noting that diseases that affect citrus trees spread very easily.
Via the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. government is donating to Costa Rica close to 400 samples representing 66 varieties of citrus tree. Del Oro, a Britishheld company that is Costa Rica’s second-largest producer of fruit juice, will care for the clean budwood on behalf of the Costa Rican government.
The company has invested $200,000 in facilities where it will cultivate the budwood, and could invest as much as $750,000 when all is said and done, according to Del Oro officials.
The hope is that one day, the young nursery will become a genetic bank for citrus growers throughout Central America.
The largest citrus company in Costa Rica, Ticofrut, will also play a role in the process, and has made a “significant” investment in facilities where it will cultivate some budwood varieties.
These days, industrial citrus fruit production requires the arboreal equivalent of thousands of Frankenstein monsters. Every citrus tree consists of two parts: the roots, called “rootstock” and the fruit-producing wood, called budwood. Both come from different species of citrus trees.
The rootstock sapling is raised to a certain size in a nursery. Then it is trimmed to a twig and a little green bud from the budwood is grafted onto the sapling. The new bud is wrapped in clear plastic until it bonds with the sapling and becomes a part of the tree.
The idea is to combine the best qualities of two citrus species. The rootstock species is hardy and disease-resistant. And the budwood species produces delicious – and marketable – fruits.
The problem that orange producers all over the world are having these days is that their budwood is getting sick. Diseases like citrus canker and a Chinese disease called greening have been ruining crops in Florida and Brazil, two of the world’s biggest citrus-producing regions.
Costa Rica, however, has remained untouched. In 2006, it exported $51 million worth of citrus juice and $275,000 worth of fruit, most of it grown in the hot, arid regions in the northwestern part of the country. The hope is that Costa Rica can stay disease free and step in to supply more of the world’s citrus needs now that Brazil and Florida are struggling.
These clean varieties of budwood will help, said Luis Echeverría, executive director of the Costa Rica’s Plant and Animal Health Services.
“Many professionals have dreamed for many years of having a citrus nursery in Costa Rica… but it never happened,” he said, principally because of lack of available material.
Ticofrut Research and Development Manager Donovan Brown said the existence of a comprehensive bank of clean budwood samples means that Costa Rica’s producers will not have to import new budwood varieties, and therefore will not run the risk of accidentally importing exotic diseases that could devastate the country’s citrus industry.
The material just donated to Costa Rica (the second half arrives this week) came from the USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Citrus and Dates, a public gene bank that maintains a wide variety of materials and donates them to start other repositories abroad.
Costa Rica’s budwood donation will be cultivated in several large “screenhouses,” nurseries that are open to the sun and breeze, yet closed to disease-carrying insects.
Though the germplasm bank (as it’s called) is to be administered by Del Oro and Ticofrut, it remains the property of the Production Ministry, and any use of the budwood must be cleared with officials.
Marco González, an agriculture specialist with the USDA, said that in addition to its cleanliness, the budwood material gives the advantage of making a large variety of citrus species readily available in Central America.
At the moment, Costa Rican producers raise only a handful of citrus varieties for export, and they have little reason to maintain a nursery with so many species. In the long term, however, such resources can be extremely valuable.
González pointed to pineapple as an example. Five years ago, pineapple producers switched to a variety – MD-2 – discovered in one of the world’s germplasm banks, and the find has revolutionized the industry.
“It’s always good to have a germplasm bank because you never know when one of those varieties will jump into the market and change the market,” González said.
The facilities Del Oro is constructing for the germplasm bank should be up and running by the end of this year, said Del Oro Production Manager Carlos Fernández.
Other officials say that soon after that, they expect new seedlings raised in the bank to make their way to Panama and Nicaragua to establish nurseries there as well.