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'Serious' threat to Florida citrus, ag secretary warns

A disease killing swaths of citrus trees in Florida is causing billions of dollars in damage and affecting thousands of jobs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told CNBC on Friday.

"It's extraordinarily serious," Vilsack said on "Squawk on the Street." "We're seeing a significant reduction in productivity in the Florida citrus crop. It's billions of dollars in loss. Thousands of jobs are being impacted and affected."

The Department of Agriculture announced Thursday the creation of an "emergency response framework" to keep citrus greening disease from destroying the stat'es citrus crop and potentially spreading to the rest of the country.

"First and foremost, we need to quarantine and stop the spread," Vilsack said, adding that the disease has caused a 9 percent reduction in the productivity of Florida's $9 billion citrus industry.

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Emma Reynolds, holds a healthy, left, and diseased Valencia orange, right, in the family groves in Lake Placid, Florida.
Mark Elias | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Emma Reynolds, holds a healthy, left, and diseased Valencia orange, right, in the family groves in Lake Placid, Florida.

The House of Representatives on Thursday passed an extension to the 2008 Farm Bill. Its reauthorization would provide resources to help combat greening disease, said Vilsack, though he doesn't expect the Senate to pass the extension.

"This is an extraordinarily important industry to Florida, to Georgia, to the entire southern part of the country," he told CNBC.

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Vilsack admitted that neither government nor private companies can cure greening disease, in which a bacteria causes trees to produce bitter, disfigured fruit and eventually kills the tree. Since 2009, the USDA has spent nearly $250 million on researching and tracking it.

"Frankly, we don't have a solution yet, once greening occurs," Vilsack said. "It results in citrus basically dropping off the trees prematurely, affecting ... value."

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Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture

A USDA official said Thursday that the "future of the citrus industry is at stake" and likened the government's efforts to "almost like a hurricane response."

Experts estimate that as much as 75 percent of Florida's 69 million citrus trees are infected with the bacteria, which may lead to its smallest crop in 24 years.

— By CNBC's Jeff Morganteen. Follow him on Twitter at @jmorganteen and get the latest stories from "Squawk on the Street." The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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