Morocco Sterilizes the Mediterranean Fruit Fly

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Rabat – The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that the Mediterranean fruit fly, sometimes referred to as the “medfly,” is threatening Morocco’s economy.

The Mediterranean fruit fly is a pest species that threatens the growth and success of the citrus fruit industry, which plays a significant role in Morocco’s economy. The production of citrus fruit employs over 13,000 farmers and produces exports of $300 million per year.

Miklos Gaspar, writing the new report for the IAEA, elaborates on the harm that the animal has caused to Morocco’s economy: “As medflies have made their home in Morocco’s citrus orchards and farms, the volume of the country’s citrus exports has been reduced due to direct damage to fruit and to increased production costs associated with the use of insecticides and post-harvest treatments, necessary for fruit exports.”

Gaspar writes that farmers have seen indirect losses because importing countries have imposed quarantine restrictions. Additionally, farmers have faced environmental costs from using traditional, broad-spectrum insecticides.

However, the European Union, which has been the main traditional export market for Moroccan citrus fruits, has increasingly lowered the acceptable levels of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, because of food safety concerns.

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The IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have helped Morocco plan an eco-friendly strategy for combating the fruit fly.

Action against the medfly: Sterilization

The IAEA, in cooperation with the FAO, has helped Morocco conduct a cost-effective and environmentally friendly approach. Gaspar writes that this effort is a “first victory in the ongoing campaign to suppress medflies.”

“Moroccan counterparts have, under an IAEA technical project, received the training and equipment necessary to detect and respond to any incursion by other pests, which is a prerequisite for the sustained suppression of the  using the sterile insect technique (SIT), an environmentally friendly nuclear technique that can lead to the suppression or elimination of insect pests,” he explained.

The sterile insect technique means mass producing and sterilizing insects for continuous aerial release over infested areas.

The government is building a facility for producing, sterilizing, and then releasing male medflies. The IAEA and the FAO are supporting the construction of the facility, which will be near Agadir, in the heart of Morocco’s citrus-producing region. The organizations will also assist through the training, expert visits, and providing equipment.

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“Some of these species are as hard to control as the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, so giving them a chance to establish themselves and then an advantage by suppressing the medfly would be counterproductive,” explained Walther Enkerlin, an expert at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

Enkerlin said that in order for the SIT approach to be successful, the facility must meet a weekly production of 100 million sterile medflies per week, which will cover the 180 000 hectares in the Souss Valley where most commercial and wild citrus are found.

According to Gaspar, an SIT intervention across such a broad area requires a sequential approach, so they have divided the total area into SIT blocks.

“Sterile flies’ rearing and release are expected to start in early 2020 and pest suppression will be gradually implemented, advancing from one block to the next, until effective pest suppression is achieved,” He writes.

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However, without a system for repelling other pests, SIT usage would still leave room for another pest to replace the medfly and “devastate” Morocco’s citrus orchards.

Controlling other pests

Controlling medflies alone is not enough to help save Morocco’s fruit industry from damage and insecticides. Gaspar points out that invasive fruit fly species from neighboring countries could still undermine whatever success that sterilizing the medfly may bring. Other species include both the peach fruit fly and the oriental fruit fly.

To mitigate this risk, Morocco and the IAEA have made a national surveillance network for the early detection of new fruit fly species. The National Office for Food Safety has built an emergency response in the event of a new pest incursion.

The surveillance network covers eight sites, classified as high-risk points-of-entry, along the country’s borders, with 94 traps.

Traps are also in 19 other risk sites, including fruit markets, tourist sites and some orchards close to risky areas.

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