ROME, MARCH 30 – Scientists, pest control experts, agricultural ministers and farmer representatives have begun a three-day meeting at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome to debate and define an international action plan to stop the spread of the Red Palm Weevil. The pest attacks date- and coconut-producing palms, as well as ornamental palms found in many European cities, threatening fruit production if its advance is not stopped.
Over the last three decades the weevil has spread rapidly through the Middle East and North Africa, affecting almost every country in the region. In total it has now been detected in more than 60 countries including France, Greece, Italy, Spain and parts of the Caribbean and Central America.
“The Red Palm Weevil represents the most dangerous threat to date palm,” FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Near East and North Africa, Mr. Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, told attendees at the opening session. “Insufficient implementation of phytosanitary standards, lack of an effective preventive strategy and insufficient monitoring of response measures explain the failure in containing the pest so far.”
The Scientific Consultation and High-Level Meeting on Red Palm Weevil is hosted by FAO in collaboration with the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM). “The Mediterranean area harbours a vast biodiversity of plant species that must be protected for social, economic and environmental reasons. A sustainable protection strategy is therefore more essential than ever to protect the whole region from phytosanitary threats,” said Cosimo Lacirignola, Secretary-General of CIHEAM.
An invisible killer
The weevil causes economic losses in the millions of dollars annually, whether through lost production or pest-control costs. In Gulf countries and the Middle East, $8 million is lost each year through removal of severely-infested trees alone. In Italy, Spain and France, the combined cost of pest management, eradication and replacement of infested palms, and loss of benefits was around €90 million by 2013. This cost is forecast to increase to €200 million by 2023 if a rigorous containment program is not in place.
Part of the problem is that the Red Palm Weevil is extremely difficult to detect in the early stages of an infestation because there are few externally-visible signs that the pest has taken over a tree: around 80 percent of the pest’s life-cycle is hidden from view. For extremely tall species, an infestation in the crown of the tree is even harder to detect. Once an infestation has taken hold it is too late to save the tree.
Oasis communities at risk
Palm trees are an important resource for many communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Dates have been a basic food staple for centuries, and are now an important economic crop. More than seven million tonnes of dates are produced annually. In total, around 100 million date palm trees are cultivated today, 60 percent of them in Arab countries. The Red Palm Weevil attacks young, soft trees that are less than 20 years old. Around half of the 100 million date palm trees fit this criteria and are therefore vulnerable.
The trees are also vital to maintaining the oasis cultivation system, whereby other productive trees and plants can grow under the palms’ canopy. If the Red Palm Weevil is not stopped, production will be heavily impacted which could trigger economic migration from oases communities to urban areas.
The Scientific Consultation and High-Level Meeting on Red Palm Weevil focuses on containing the pest’s spread. Advances in integrated pest control will be shared such as the targeted and reduced use of insecticides and bio-pesticides, low-cost, highly-sensitive microphones that can detect larvae feeding inside a tree, pheromone-based traps, drones, remote-sensing, and sniffer dogs. During the high-level session on Friday government representatives are expected to discuss and adopt a multi-disciplinary and multi-regional strategy that includes effective implementation of cross-border phytosanitary standards. (@OnuItalia)