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State's take on canker just a little bit cantankerous

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2002


Please understand that I started out in a friendly posture toward our state Department of Agriculture. I accepted, and still accept, the state's goal of eradicating the disease of citrus canker in Florida through the removal of infected trees. I wrote a column last week saying so.

But since then, in an effort to learn more about the science behind the department's position, I have been condescended to, lectured and buffaloed. It is no wonder the department is so busy fighting conspiracy theories. It gives them plenty of fuel.

No, I do not believe the state is hiding or trying to suppress a cure for citrus canker just because the industry thinks it would be too expensive. A lot of people do, though.

Yes, I accept the department's doctrine that Florida should not try to "live with" canker, as so many people so wishfully argue. At best, a diseased Florida citrus industry would be crippled.

But where I ran into a wall with Agriculture, as so many others have, was in asking about the scientific basis for the policy that all other trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree be destroyed.

The 1,900-feet radius is holy gospel. The department even got the state Legislature to write it into law this year. That is one of the issues in the court cases under way.

I do not doubt that the 1,900-foot rule, applied relentlessly, will eradicate citrus canker. But, you know, so would cutting down every citrus tree in Florida. It is reasonable to ask where a reasonable tradeoff lies.

The department has refused to provide the underlying research data to justify 1,900 feet. It currently is deciding how to answer a court order to do so. A spokeswoman told me the department does not actually have the data -- it is the property of a scientist outside the agency. This is a ridiculous and unacceptable way of imposing policy on 15-million people.

The state's claim is that by destroying all trees within a 1,900-foot radius of a known infected tree, we will catch every bit of canker 95 percent of the time. For those few trees that get infected outside this circle, a second 1,900-foot radius almost always does the trick.

Yet in setting the size of that circle, there is a law of diminishing returns at work. To climb from 95 percent success to 99 percent, for example, the state admits that it would have to more than double the radius to 4,000 feet. Such a tiny extra gain is not worth the much wider devastation.

So here is the key question. How does that same tradeoff work in the opposite direction -- toward a smaller radius?

At what radius would we catch all of the disease 90 percent of the time, or 80 percent or 70 percent?

At how low a rate would we still eliminate the disease? What would be the tradeoff in time, and number of trees destroyed? Why is 95 percent the magic number -- is it some sort of statistical dropping-off point? Is it a proven minimum at which we outrace the bacteria? Or is it an arbitrary tail pinned on the donkey?

The Department of Agriculture's response to my questions was to stage a group telephone conversation with a state scientist, a media spokesperson and a deputy commissioner. The spokesperson and deputy commissioner answered most of the questions that I tried to put to the scientist, at first saying, "Let me interrupt here," but soon dispensing even with that nicety. The more I tried to ask the scientist about the tradeoffs involved, the more frustrated they got. Why would I not see how obviously right they were?

Remember, I do support the department's goal of eradication and do not buy into the conspiracy theories. But as a taxpayer in Florida I expect a rational basis for my government's actions, I expect this basis to be available for public view and I expect the government to be eager to explain it. To borrow a favorite phrase of Gov. Jeb Bush, the process should be "transparent." The department is going out of its way to fail all of those tests.

The department does not understand that if it demands that the citizens make this flat, blind-faith choice, a growing number of the citizens will choose canker. Eventually a majority of them will. Undeterred, this week the department is procuring 3,000 new search warrants in Palm Beach County.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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