UF Research Gives Florida Avocado Industry Hope

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Laurel wilt disease does not affect the avocado fruit itself, rather the tree the fruit grows on, eventually killing it. The new study on algorithms and pictures detecting the disease early could mean the stop of the disease's spread, saving trees. Lea Aharonovitch/Flickr
Laurel wilt disease does not affect the avocado fruit itself, rather the tree the fruit grows on, eventually killing it. The new study on algorithms and pictures detecting the disease early could mean the stop of the disease’s spread, saving trees. Lea Aharonovitch/Flickr

Guacamole lovers can take a deep breath.

Florida’s avocado industry, worth about $100 million per year, has been negatively impacted by laurel wilt disease, a fungal infection carried by the redly ambrosia beetle that kills trees in the laurel family — avocado trees included. The disease wilts stems of the tree and creates dark streaks in the wood.

But researchers say they have found an algorithm to detect the disease long before farmers can.

Reza Ehsani is an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering for the University of Florida. He was one of the team members who worked on a new study, which details in part how the algorithm can be used on avocado tree images to detect the disease.

“Obviously we are excited,” Ehsani said.

The current methods of detecting laurel wilt involve time-consuming visual inspection, he said. With this algorithm, the hope is to have small planes with special cameras more efficiently keep track of where the disease is.

Ehsani stressed the sooner the disease is detected, the sooner a grower can decide whether or not to remove the infected tree from a field to prevent the spreading of the fungal disease.

The initial symptoms of laurel wilt can look much like that of other agricultural diseases like fruit distress, and Ehsani said the algorithm is meant to distinguish it from similar, but still different, issues.

Ehsani first began researching the laurel wilt algorithm while he was working on the disease effecting Florida’s orange crop, citrus greening. He said they are treated with similar concepts and he wanted to bring more of an engineering approach to finding laurel wilt as early as possible.

How that is achieved comes with help from a camera that has six spectral bands. Infected trees reflect light from across the spectrum differently than healthy trees, and can be detected before visible signs appear. These optical techniques are paired with the algorithm and can detect the fungus when there appears to be no symptoms to the naked eye.

Denise Feiber, spokeswoman for the Division of Plant Industry in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Florida’s avocado industry is trying to stay ahead despite losing trees.

“Early detection in any disease is so critical,” she said.

The redbay ambrosia beetle has been linked to the spreading of the fungal pathogen. Feiber said the beetle has migrated down from South Carolina to South Florida over the last decade.

“That’s the vector for the disease,” Feiber said.

The beetle gets moved around when wood pallets and firewood are transported. Feiber said there is ample research taking place in multiple areas concerning laurel wilt, which will help the cause. 

“Anything they can do to detect the disease earlier is helpful,” she said.

As of spring 2014, surveys by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services revealed 10 counties in the state had been affected, including Lafayette County.

For now, Ehsani is hopeful that this algorithm and photo technology will add to the tool belt for farmers fighting laurel wilt.

“The fact that we are able to do this, I think it will be a great help,” Ehsani said.

About Caitie Switalski

Caitie is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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