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Bayer AG signs $12 million partnership with Florida citrus research group to fight greening

The Ledger – August 17, 2017

LAKE ALFRED – Whatever the result of the war against the bacterial disease citrus greening, history will record the Florida citrus industry brought every big gun it could find to the battle.

The new big gun is Bayer AG. The global chemical and pharmaceutical company based in Germany announced a $12 million collaboration over the next three years with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc. in Lake Alfred to find a new strategies against the disease destroying Florida citrus.

Bayer will devote 12 scientists to research looking for natural toxins that attack the bacteria in infected trees or chemicals that enhance the tree’s natural defenses against the disease, said Harold Browning, the foundation’s chief executive, on Thursday. If it discovers any effective treatments, Bayer will bring its expertise on regulatory approval and delivering the product to growers.

“It’s just a more holistic strategy, and these guys are among the best in the world at finding innovative solutions to agriculture,” he said. “There will be people at Bayer coming to work every day looking to find a solution to (greening).”

Greening is an eventually fatal disease that gradually weakens a citrus tree, diminishing its ability to produce mature fruit. The harvest of oranges, grapefruit and tangerine crops in Florida has fallen by more than 70 percent since greening arose in the state in 2005.

The Citrus Research Foundation has spent more than $125 million on research to combat greening since its founding in 2009, Browning said. Its current budget totals nearly $18 million, including $8 million in state money and more than $1 million in tax revenue paid by growers.

The Bayer deal addresses one frequently voiced concern among Florida citrus officials: Even if research finds an effective treatment against greening, will a company step forward to manufacture and sell it?

Citrus remains a minor U.S. crop without much potential to generate large sales dollars even with a popular product.

The agreement gives Bayer the exclusive right to manufacture and sell any product arriving out of the collaboration, Browning said. The company would also bear the cost of getting the required regulatory approval.

Another advantage of the agreement is that Bayer will be working on treatments for Florida’s existing stock of more than 60 million citrus trees, said Larry Black, a Fort Meade grower and Citrus Research Foundation board member. Almost all Florida citrus trees are infected with greening.

Citrus industry researchers and officials agree the most promising solution to greening will be breeding new trees that tolerate the disease or resist infection. But that’s more than a decade off.

“The strength of the Bayer collaboration is the resource it has worldwide; it adds strength to the search for solutions,” Black said. “This is big news for the Florida citrus industry and for the Florida citrus grower. It’s a reason to be optimistic.”

The $12 million Bayer will receive from the agreement initially will come from existing revenue in the foundation’s budget, Browning said.

The only source of new revenue for the collaboration is a $500,000 contribution from the Coca-Cola Co., he said. Coke owns the Minute Maid brand, the second largest seller of orange juice products in the U.S.

But PepsiCo Inc. also has agreed to contribute an unspecified sum to the collaboration, Browning said, and the foundation hopes to raise money from other companies to underwrite the Bayer collaboration. Pepsi owns Tropicana Products Inc., the largest seller and producer of U.S. orange juice products.

“We hope this will create interest in new funding coming in,” said Bobby Barben, an Avon Park grower and chairman of the foundation’s Research Management Committee. “I don’t foresee it (Bayer funding) affecting any existing research projects.”

Bayer had existing relationships with Pepsi and Coke, Barben and Browning said, and the companies helped bring about the collaboration.

Bayer scientists have already identified several candidates, including microbes and chemicals, from its extensive database that show promise at working against greening bacteria, Browning said. The goal is to screen those substances in the lab and have some candidates ready for field trials by the third year.

But it could take many years beyond that to get the necessary regulatory approvals to bring those treatments to the market, Barben and Browning said.

Still they agreed with Black there’s reason for hope.

“It’s truly encouraging to have a world-class R&D organization behind the effort to defeat (greening),” said Mike Sparks, chief executive of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the growers’ trade group. “Bayer brings a depth of knowledge to the fight that is unparalleled. In addition to the other projects our industry has in the pipeline I am relentlessly optimistic we will not only survive HLB but thrive into the future.”

In its 2016 fiscal year, Bayer employed about 115,200 people and had global sales of more than $54 billion.

It spent more than $5.5 billion on research and development.

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