GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is sending an inter-departmental team of scientists to Cuba as part of a grant that is believed to be the first federally-funded project for scientific field research in Cuba.
The project’s principal investigator (PI), associate professor Damian Adams; project co-PIs assistant professor Jiri Hulcr and postdoctoral associates Paloma Carton de Grammont and José Soto, and other UF/IFAS research scientists and graduate students from the School of Forest Resources & Conservation, the Entomology and Nematology Department, the Food and Resource Economics Department, and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering will travel to Cuba for this research, funded by a $228,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The project team is traveling to Cuba to fulfill several missions:
Conduct research to identify wood-boring pest species in Cuba that could pose high-risk threats to U.S. agriculture and forests.
Train Cuban scientists on state-of-the-art methods to accurately identify these wood-boring pests in Cuba in an effort to reduce the possibility of transmission of these pests to Florida agriculture and forests.
Understand how Cuba’s plant protection programs and policies impact pest movement, particularly to the United States.
Estimate the potential economic impact of a pest invasion from Cuba to the United States.
Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agricultural and natural resources, said UF/IFAS is very interested in sending researchers to Cuba for this landmark information-gathering mission.
“Drs. Adams, Hulcr, Carton de Grammont, and Soto will bring back important data and insights about invasive species that could help protect Florida agriculture.” Payne said. “They’ll also help foster relations with the Cuban scientists. This is invaluable information that will benefit Florida agricultural producers.”
“The project will assess the risks to Florida from exotic plant pests in Cuba, consistent with UF/IFAS’ mission to protect and enhance agriculture and natural resources of Florida,” Adams said.
“We will be analyzing Cuba’s policies and institutional capacity to prevent and mitigate the movement of pests,” he said. “The project will focus on wood-boring beetles – the group of pests that, following their arrival from Asia, destroyed nearly a billion redbay and swamp bay trees in the Everglades, and threaten the Florida avocado industry.”
Woodborers account for the majority of new tree pest invasions to the U.S. They could harm pine plantations, citrus groves and many tree species, Adams said. Invasive tree pests, like wood-boring beetles, cause billions of dollars in economic damages for timber producers, residential property owners and government agencies.
Because of its tropical climate and status as a major transportation hub, Florida is the U.S. state most vulnerable to invasive species, with more than 85 percent of new exotic plants entering the U.S. through the port of Miami. Since the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015 and the loosening of some U.S. and Cuban travel restrictions, travel has substantially increased between Cuba and the U.S., particularly Florida. If trade relations should be re-established with Cuba, the U.S. needs to be wary of new pests from Cuba, Adams explained.
“It took a lot of work to get this point,” Adams said. He credits the team effort that it took to get the grant, including work by Bill Messina, an economic analyst in the UF/IFAS food and resource economics department, and Fred Royce, an associate research scientist in the UF/IFAS agricultural and biological engineering department, who have been conducting collaborative research in Cuba and building relationships with Cuban researchers and scientists for over 20 years.
Adams sees the UF/IFAS-Cuba collaboration as proactive, working together and sharing scientific information before the pests arrive.
“Our project is helping us understand how the Cuban institutions in charge of plant and forest health are organized and their capacity to identify, detect and manage pests,” Adams said. “It’s the USDA’s job to help protect agriculture and natural areas from invasive pests, but Cuba is a black box to the USDA. We know almost nothing about what pests are in Cuba, that nation’s ability to prevent or manage invasive pests or who to contact in Cuba if the countries need to work together on the next big pest problem.”