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The Middle East's Fruitful Valley

Fruit vendor in Jordan

A street market in Jordan. (Photo: Ilan Mizrahi for IAEA)

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Arava Valley, Middle East -- Their people share an agricultural valley, and now they share the fruits of partnership - to the tune of millions of dollars every year.

Scientists, politicians, and farmers from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority are winning a long and largely invisible fight against the odds. Their common foe: the Mediterranean fruit fly, or Medfly, one of the world's most destructive agricultural pests. Among their allies: the IAEA, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and tools of nuclear science and technology.

At a military checkpoint between Israel and Jordan in the Arava Valley, a precious cargo is traded. One-hundred-and-fifty-thousand sterilized male flies. Trapped in a dozen brownpaper bags, they buzz as they pass from Israeli to Jordanian hands.

Later that day, a plane loaded with seven million flies will make a two hour flight from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It is the only plane authorised to tick-tack between the two countries in this region where military "no-fly zones" typically rule.

Twice a week, Steve Carrigan becomes the friendly "fly bomber", releasing swarms of sterile male flies by air to overrun the Mediterranean Basin´s shared Valley. The Medflies are commercially bred for birth control; their mating yields no offspring. If left to multiply in the wild, Medflies would wreak havoc on citrus and other fruit, quickly turning crops into infested mush.

Scientists call the pest-control technology the sterile insect technique (SIT). It is an environmentally friendly method, with a basic "birds and the bees" concept. No offspring means a dwindling fly population over time, through systematic and targeted campaigns combined with other strategic measures on an area-wide basis.

That's what is happening in the Arava Valley. The ultimate goal is eradication from the Valley. "We´re using a pest to fight a pest," says Jordan's Minister of Agriculture, Mostafa Qrunfleh. "Together with partners, we're winning." The IAEA and FAO have supported the project since the mid-1990s.

For Israeli farmer Ezra Ravins, success means he can sell his bell peppers to lucrative export markets like the USA where imported fruit and vegetables must come from fruit-fly-free zones. The bell peppers are grown inside enormous greenhouses - cool oases of reds and orange on lush green plants - that dot the desert landscape. Mr. Ravins says the SIT programme helped to convince tough European and US regulators that his produce is free of infestation.

Business is booming for the "clean" fruit. Bell pepper production in the Arava Valley has grown a hundred times since the programme started, from less than $1 million a year in 1998 when the programme started to $120 million in exports last year. Pesticide use has fallen.

Across the valley in Jordan, Abdullah Ja'afreh sees his fruit farm production rising. He and other growers are exporting to their Gulf neighbours and entering Eastern European markets. Yields have improved and there's better quality fruit for the local market.

"The Medfly is not the big problem it once was. Ten years ago you would see infestation on guavas. Now not," Mr. Ja'afreh says.

The IAEA and FAO first helped to set up pilot projects and supply sterile male Medflies to Israel and Jordan in 1998, four years after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty and related cooperation agreements. The Palestinian Authority joined the partnership one year later, and now has the capacity to adopt the technology. The IAEA funded the partnership for many years, and so did the USA, including a four-year, $2.5 million grant.

The sterile flies are bred in a commercial mass-rearing facility in Israel called Biofly. Among the specialists there is Inbar Shouster-Dagan, who was trained on mass-rearing techniques at the IAEA's Seibersdorf Laboratories and in Chile. She says that 20 million sterile male flies are produced there each week and released into the wild.

Plans today are to expand the science alliance. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian fruit growers already have placed bulk orders for sterile Medflies, and hopes are high that the SIT project can resume as political conditions allow.

Interest is strong in other areas of Israel and Jordan. In Ashqelon near Gaza, Michael Noy manages fruit and vegetable farms with a $200 million annual turn-over. He also wants to benefit from SIT-based campaigns. "Every year more and more chemicals are banned," Mr. Noy explains. "Ten years from now there may be no other option. Consumers want quality fruit."

Farther north, beyond the Arava Valley in Jordan, the story is much the same. Farmers rely heavily on pesticides to control Medflies and other pests. Even so, Ahmad Mustafa Massadeh complains that the Medfly destroys about 25% of his crop.

Mary Bahdousheh coordinates the Medfly project in Jordan, as the Head of Agricultural Pest Control. Unlike the mistrust clouding the Medfly partnership with Israel in the mid-1990s, years of cooperation and communication since then have paid off, she says. With the IAEA's help, Ms. Bahdousheh brought Jordanian farmers like Isac Medanat across the border to see first-hand what was happening on the Israeli side of the Valley, and to speak with experts and their farming neighbours.

A prime focus today in Jordan is making sure that bustling cities like Aqaba in the south do not become potential "hot spots" for Medfly outbreaks that could place Valley harvests in the north at risk. Jordanians like to grow fruit trees, like kumquat and lemon, in their gardens, and pest-control and monitoring programmes have to be strict in urban areas.

"An outbreak would be a disaster for commercial orchards," says Jean-Pierre Cayol, an entomologist and the IAEA programme management officer for the Medfly technical cooperation project in the Middle East.

For the region's agricultural leaders, the success of the Medfly project feeds hopes. "As much as this may sound remarkable, the Medfly acts as a bridge to peace," Israel's Minister of Agriculture, Shalom Simhon, says. "We're working together to protect our shared region." -- Kirstie Hansen, IAEA Division of Public Information