UAE pledges $2m in fight against killer date palm pest

UN-backed regional fund seeks to raise $20m in fight against the red palm weevil as UAE food security minister calls on nations to come together to protect vital date palms

29.10.18  Her Excellency Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Mehairi; Minister of State for Food Security, attending the Agiscape exhibition on agricultural investments and food security,  in Abu Dhabi at the Rosewood hotel. Anna Nielsen for the National

The UAE has pledged $2 million (Dh7.3m) to a fund set up to support the eradication of a deadly pest wiping out date palms.

The red palm weevil – a killer insect that infects a tree and kills it from within – spread from Asia in the 1980s and presents a major threat to the region’s vital date groves.

At a major conference held in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, featuring agriculture ministers from across the region, the UAE's food security minister said it was vital nations banded together to address the issue.

"It is a huge threat," Mariam Al Mehairi, Minister of State for Food Security, told The National.

“We could put all our efforts here [in the UAE] but it wouldn’t eradicate it. This is a cross-border pest."

The fund was established last year by the UN’s food and agricultural organisation (FAO) and seeks to raise $20m in pledges from about 15 countries in the region. The FAO has already donated several million itself, while $2m had been donated by Saudi Arabia, Oman has pledged $100,000, Libya $250,000 and now the UAE has weighed in. The money will be redeployed to aid regional efforts to tackle the weevil.

“We are spending a lot of money in combating the red weevil by spraying date palms and even the good ones to make sure they are protected,” said Ms Al Mehairi. “So if we can figure out how to remove the problem, it will reduce the combating fees we have in place.”

The threat to the palm is stark. Close to 90 per cent of the world’s dates are grown in the Middle East and North African region, while the UN has warned the livelihoods of 50 million farmers are in jeopardy.

The deadly beetle has already wiped out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of date palms in the Mediterranean. Precise figures were not revealed for how many palms are affected in the UAE but the country is among the world’s top date exporters.

Its groves are a source of food, raw materials, a provider of jobs and a tourist attraction. Date plantations also provide a windbreaker under which other crops such as bananas are grown.

“Pledges usually rise slowly,” said FAO director general Jose Graziano da Silva.

AL AIN , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Mar 12 , 2015 : View of the Al Ain Oasis in Al Mutawaa area in Al Ain. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Stock *** Local Caption ***  PS1203- OASIS18.jpg

“We’ve already put $4m into the fund from our own money. And we are doing this pledge because we don’t have more money and also because this region is rich compared with other regions we work in such as Africa.”

While it could not be revealed how much of the money had been spent so far, Mr da Silva said the countries pledging would be the ones to benefit the most.

“We don’t get a dollar back and it all goes to provide support for farmers, researchers and the government."

A female weevil can lay hundreds of eggs in just one tree. These larvae eat their way through the trunk and the palm can die within months. Part of the problem is that early detection is difficult because there are few easily visible signs that indicate the presence of the weevil apart from insect entry holes. A second is poor quarantine measures with the pest spreading across borders through infested plants.

“We are all combating it but to eradicate it we need to work together,” said Ms Al Mehairi.

The fund is part of a broader five-year fightback by the UN and regional powers that seeks to train 3.2 million farmers, improve pest management system and eradicate the pest completely. Money is pouring into the field with drones and smartphone apps being deployed to combat the scourge.

Red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus)

A selection of unmanned aerial vehicles were on display at the conference on Saturday, including one resembling a B-2 stealth bomber. The vehicles can carry out aerial reconnaissance of date groves and even pinpoint which palms could have a problem, while a new app - SusaHamra - is being used to collect data when inspecting palms.

The donor conference also heard about the experience of Mauritania. The African country has managed to eradicate the pest within a year through government support, engagement with farmers and preventing the spread of plants from infected areas to others.

“A lot of measures were put in place,” said Mr da Sila, “We are now replicating that.”

The event concludes on Sunday when the winner of the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation is announced.