Deeply rooted in the economies and cultures of the people of the Near East and North Africa, the date palm is under severe threat, and with it the livelihoods of an estimated 50 million farmers in the region.
The cause of this is the red palm weevil, the most dangerous and destructive pest of palm trees worldwide, capable of feeding on the trees’ growing tissue from the inside. This insect originated in South East Asia and has spread rapidly through the Near East and North Africa where an estimated 90 per cent of the world’s date palms are grown.
Part of the problem is that early detection is difficult because there are few externally visible symptoms that indicate the presence of the pest in a host tree. Field teams must look for small insect entry holes in the base or crown of each tree.
Lapses in quarantine procedures are also to blame. The invasive pest moves from one country to another mainly through infested planting material.
It is clear that combating this pest effectively requires enhanced solidarity and co-operation between countries and regions, in particular to ensure that traded host plants of the red palm weevil are pest-free and to harmonise monitoring and control strategies.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is at the forefront of efforts to tackle the red palm weevil, working together with many partners, such as the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, the Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development, the Near East Plant Protection Organisation and the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari.
In 2017, the FAO hosted a scientific consultation and high-level meeting that included member countries, other UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, regulatory authorities, international scientists, farmer organisations and the private sector. The meeting agreed on a framework strategy for the eradication of the red palm weevil and support for the establishment of a trust fund to implement it.
Containing, controlling and ultimately eradicating the red palm weevil is possible.
In Mauritania for example, an integrated pest-management approach based on the active participation and strong commitment of farmers and their co-operatives, has led to considerable success in curbing the spread in the previously red palm weevil-infested Tidjikja region.
Part of the solution lies in geographic information systems that collect data from infested trees to better manage pest-control operations. In addition, research is under way to develop natural pest-control measures. Other innovative solutions include dogs that can sniff out infestations, detection via thermal imaging and highly sensitive microphones that can hear larvae feeding inside a palm tree.
The FAO is developing simple yet powerful tools to assist farmers in better monitoring and managing the red palm weevil. A mobile app, SusaHamra, is used to collect standard data when inspecting and treating palms and checking pheromone traps for the red palm weevil. A global platform is being established for mapping field data and analytics for better decision making. Remote sensing is being combined with artificial intelligence to map palm trees for improved monitoring of the spread of the red palm weevil.
Stopping the spread of the red palm weevil also requires countries’ commitment to enforce international phytosanitary measures on the movement of infested material across borders.
The FAO has developed a five-year regional programme for the Near East and North Africa to support efforts in more than 15 countries, in order to contain the spread and finally eradicate this pest. This programme focuses on three interrelated elements: research, capacity development, as well as transfer of knowledge and technology.
Success hinges on the support of governments and partners. With this purpose, on March 9 and 10 in Abu Dhabi, the FAO is co-organising a donor meeting to replenish the trust fund that was established in 2017. The FAO counts on the generosity of all countries, especially those from the Near East and North Africa region, to to tackle the red palm weevil. We must build on the momentum to stop this threat.
José Graziano da Silva is director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations