Don’t want antibiotics sprayed on your citrus? Sorry – it’s about to expand, big-time

Julie Hauserman photo

The Trump administration has given the go-ahead for agricultural operations to spray antibiotics on nearly a half-million acres of Florida citrus, a move some scientists warn could increase the problem of antibiotic resistance in people and in the environment.

Federal officials are allowing greatly expanded use of streptomycin and oxytetracycline –  antibiotics often used on people — as a pesticide on commercially grown citrus. Agricultural operations plan to use the antibiotic sprays to combat the widespread disease called citrus greening, which has devastated the citrus industry. The antibiotics won’t cure the disease, and will have to be sprayed repeatedly over years just to keep the trees alive and producing fruit until they succumb to citrus greening.

Allowing so much antibiotic residue in Florida soils, runoff, and air is unprecedented. It’s unclear how much of the antibiotics – sprayed on leaves and taken up into the plant’s vascular system – will end up in fruit; it’s never been sprayed on this scale before. Test results the citrus industry provided to federal officials reported low antibiotic residues.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed concern, but ultimately ruled that the economic benefits outweigh the agency’s concerns about antibiotic resistance and potential harm to the environment, people, and wildlife. The amount of antibiotic exposure to people who eat fruit or juices is far less than what people are exposed to when prescribed antibiotics by their doctor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

The ramped-up antibiotic spraying was requested by Florida’s Department of Agriculture and by numerous citrus growers. Several public interest groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Food & Water Watch, and Keep Antibiotics Working are warning against it.

Antibiotic spraying has been used in apple and pear orchards for many years – including on an emergency basis for citrus recently in Florida –  but at much lower levels than what the Trump administration will now allow on Florida and California citrus. The Center for Biological Diversity says the new approval paves the way for up to 480,000 acres of Florida citrus to be treated with more than 650,000 pounds of streptomycin per year to combat citrus canker and citrus greening disease.

A chief concern is that the EPA hasn’t fully analyzed how spraying antibiotics at this scale could affect people, wildlife, and waterways, says Nathan Donley, the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior scientist. One EPA analysis notes that “uncertainty exists regarding the potential for development of resistance, or cross-resistance with other antibiotics, that could result from pesticide applications.”

Both the European Union and Brazil have banned the use of oxytetracycline and streptomycin for use as a pesticide on agricultural plants.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing health problems, with the rise of factory farms using antibiotics to stop infection in meat and dairy animals. The concern is that the antibiotics which now work on human problems like pneumonia, tuberculosis and other deadly infections will become ineffective. Another concern is that the antibiotics will affect bees, which pollinate citrus flowers, as well as small mammals like rabbits. In the environment, antibiotics can change the chemistry of soil and water, knocking ecosystems out of balance.

“Researchers have been telling us for decades to curb the use of antibiotics in agriculture or risk losing them forever,” Donley said. “The Trump administration has chosen to ignore the science and blindly sprint down a path that could dead-end at bacterial resistance.”

For citrus growers, the last 10 years have been a nightmare as citrus greening spread from South Florida north, affecting groves in dozens of counties. They spray pesticides to kill the imported insect that carries the disease, but it hasn’t stopped citrus greening’s forward march up the peninsula. They are also working to develop new strains of citrus that resist the disease. The antibiotics, they argued in numerous comment letters to federal officials, are the only known way to stay in business. The press office of the Florida Department of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment.

One strategy that agricultural officials and growers plan to try is to “cycle” between different antibiotics in hopes of thwarting antibiotic resistance which might develop in the citrus. But the group Keep Antibiotics Working says there’s not good science to show that would work.

“Florida makes the unsubstantiated claim that cycling between the two antibiotics streptomycin and oxytetracycline will ‘minimize any selection pressure’ and therefore can be considered a ‘an effective resistance management program’ that will not only reduce resistance in the target organism but ‘should also help in preventing development of resistance in nontarget bacteria as well.’ The use of cycling of antibiotics as proposed here for the management of resistance is highly controversial even in human medicine and there is no clear evidence that it can be considered ‘an effective resistance management program,’” Keep Antibiotics Working wrote in a letter to the EPA.

Donley of the Center for Biological Diversity and others say they sympathize with the struggling citrus industry, but believe this is the wrong solution and poses a massive risk.

“Our issue is that these drugs are a really lousy answer to a complex problem, and the potential for risk outweighs the benefits,” he said. “This is just another example of the pesticide office of the EPA approving a pesticide that’s not been studied well enough for the agency to make a competent decision on its safety. This happens a lot, where the pesticide office approves a pesticide without studies, then 10 to 15 years later we find out it has unintended consequences to human health or to environmental health and at that point it is often too late and the damage has been done.”


Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.


  1. Julie,
    We’ve been reversing Florida’s citrus greening without chemicals. It’s a no brained.
    Stop Roundup. It kills the soil microorganisms and the tree starves. We ask for the growers worst acres to treat. When the tree starts dying the bugs come.
    When the tree gets nutrients the bugs go away. Roundup is the problem. Maybe you can find out why “they” want to destroy Florida’s $90 Billion industry providing over 70,000 jobs and putting growers out of business with the lies from UF.
    I call it a land grab taking away personal property. Florida is a test state to transfer much land into government hands, for the good or recreation of the people. The central corridor and the Indian River Blue Way are the plans. Restore for $300 an acre it $3000 an acre to destroy and confiscate private property.
    Our children need food that is nutrient dense and chemical free for normal neuro and brain development. America is NOT LITERATE. ILLITERACY is the worst disease in America. We are, 30th in the world. We need our youth to be literate, well nourished productive and responsible. It cant happen when we can’t even give them decent food.

    Hoping you will be inspired to write the truth.

  2. So you would have the Florida Citrus Industry collapse instead of using a stop gap measure while new remedies are under investigation and trial? The leftist sources that you quote all take more of a political stance than a scientific one. You present NO positive alternatives or solutions and just paint an unfounded questionable uncertain picture of future catastrophe, the modus operandi of the left. Fear is how you manipulate the masses. I am anxiously awaiting the follow up article describing the research, development, and trials for the new methods to control citrus greening.

  3. This another case of making uninformed decisions before knowing the end result. As a Vietnam War veteran that has an 80% disabled VA rating, and formally 100% because of prostate cancer in remission, I don’t believe we should create more problems by spraying any unproven product on any plants.

  4. There are citrus plants genetically engineered to resist citrus greening, which would not need antibiotics. These could help solve the issues facing citrus farmers. Unfortunately, misunderstanding and fear of genetic engineering prevents these solutions from being used.

  5. The best tool to improve quality of life has been the discovery of antibiotics after vaccins and the impact of washing hands.
    With the spray of chemicals in our environment we are contaminating all products parts of our life, creating new diseases but also inhibiting the power of treatments like antibiotics which are responsible for healthy life extension. We have the science, we need to stop the sorcerer apprentices in political arena. Governments were created to protect citizens

  6. Since it has already been shown that Roundup use in citrus groves ties up essential minerals and kills soil bacteria resulting in poor resistance to greening…and that mineral and biologic sprays can reverse greening…doesn’t it sound really stupid to spray antibiotics all over creation??? This is typical modern science for use a drug to combat a side effect of another drug/chemical…instead of correcting underlying root causes.

  7. Dear Julie Hauserman,
    The lab created mosquitoes were kept alive with high doses of tetracycline in the lab as a control because it is not something normally found in the environment. The EPA needs to be notified of this if they are going to allow spraying oxytetracycline in the environment. It seems one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing and could make changes to these lab created mosquitoes. These mosquitoes have been let go in Florida, in Miami, the Keys and even St Augustine. Probably other areas that I didn’t hear about. See this about the mosquitoes- There’s No Failsafe With Wolbachia Bugs
    In some cases, experimental GE mosquitoes have been genetically engineered to die in the absence of the antibiotic tetracycline (which is introduced in the lab in order to keep them alive long enough to breed). They were designed this way assuming they would not have access to that drug in the wild, a failsafe (though not a perfect one, especially since antibiotics are now showing up in waterways) to ensure that the GE insects could theoretically be removed from the environment if necessary.

    • This is critical information, but unfortunately, it’s clearly also TMI for policy makers to use intelligently and appropriately.

  8. This article, as important as it is to make the public aware of the use of antibiotics with anything we consume in our bodies, it unfairly targets Trump. Let’s not make a subject as this a political one. According to The Washington Examiner, “He released a plan this year to tackle the issue, which was also a priority under the Obama administration.” There is so much debate and the use of antibiotics used in the agricultural industry. If we do a little research and reading this subject has been around for many years. Reading further The Trump Administration has not been irresponsible and takes this use lightly.

  9. No, wrong, the author would do well to note that the effects are well-understood and it will not take 10 to 15 years to find out the effects. The effects we’re made plain as day and TGEN the EU and Brazil outlawed the usage of the chemicals. Then there is this pathetic and sad little notion that everybody just seems to be a tard about:
    the EPA and politicians and the growers all know better. They do. This is done in malice and with the greater good of the people and public deliberately challenged and opposed out of spite and desperate hatred for living person’s.

  10. Did they think thru how people who are allergic to those antibiotics will react and were they going to broadcast it so we were aware? I just happened to come across an article in one of those free magazines at the grocery store that mentioned it. I’m deathly allergic to any of the cycline family of drugs…like throat closing ..if I hadn’t been in the hospital already..when they gave it to me I would be dead variety…ot Would be nice to know if they tested people to see how they reacted when they were deciding on the antibiotics to use.

  11. I have been trying to find this EPA document authorizing it, but I can’t.

    Does anyone know where I can have access to it?


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