There are few things more evocative of the Arab world than the date palm. A widely enjoyed staple in the UAE for more than 7,000 years, mentioned in the Quran more than 20 times and traditionally eaten to break the fast during Ramadan, its fruit is so embedded in the culture and identity of the region that any challenge to its existence seems unimaginable. Now, these majestic trees face a very real threat. The red palm weevil is a deadly pest that infects trees and destroys them from the inside out. Capable of laying waste to entire groves, it migrated from Asia in the 1980s and is now ravaging crops further afield, with millions of dollars' worth of damage reported across the Mediterranean.
While the number of afflicted trees in the UAE is not known, approximately 90 per cent of the world's dates are grown in the Middle East and North Africa. Accordingly, the UN estimates that the palm weevil has the potential to destroy the livelihoods of millions of farmers. It also poses a serious challenge to food security. It was against this grim backdrop that agriculture ministers and experts from across the region gathered in Abu Dhabi on Saturday for a conference dedicated to halting the insect in its tracks. The UAE has pledged $2 million (Dh7.3m) to a fund established by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation in support of a five-year plan to eradicate the red palm weevil. Other donors include Saudi Arabia, Oman and Libya.
The programme includes the training of 3.2 million farmers in pest management – a vital step, given that the weevil burrows its way into tree trunks and is notoriously difficult to spot – and tightening up quarantine systems that have allowed it to spread via imported plants. The initiative is also embracing technology, with specialised mobile apps and drones being deployed to detect and combat infestations. It is clear that the only way to tackle the region’s shared ecological challenges is to collaborate and share knowledge. Fortunately, this is a strategy routinely embraced by the UAE. In the words of Mariam Al Mehairi, Minister of State for Food Security: “To eradicate it we need to work together… This is a cross-border pest."