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Patagonia´s Pride

Patagonia Medfly

The Patagonia growing region was cleared as "fruit-fly-free" in December 2005 - its fruit, mostly pears, apples, and cherries, are exported to the USA without quarantine. (Photo: FunBaPa)

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General Roca, Argentina -- From a nation famous for prized beef, championship football, and fiery tango dancers, meet Packham´s Triumph, a Patagonia pear. Better yet, taste one: "Deliciosa".

Pears like Packham´s Triumph are the pride of General Roca, a town in the heart of Argentina´s fruit basket. So are apples, peaches, and other fruits. Here, along the fertile banks of the Rio Negro, the town´s 80,000 citizens live from the land´s green oases. They cultivate orchards sheltered from winds by tall poplars their ancestors planted decades ago.

Today, 69-year-old Enrique Scholz, a Patagonian fruit grower of German ancestry, points to a giant sculpture along the town´s main road that pays tribute to the generational story. It´s a shiny steel apple seven meters high in the sky - a monument to the hard work and rewards of fruit production in this country.

Each March, Mr. Scholz recounts, the sight becomes the centrepiece of the nation´s apple festival hosted here. "From blossom time to harvest time, the orchards have been my life for nearly 40 years," he says with a smile.

Esteban Jorge Rial passes by the big apple everyday. He´s lived with his family in this countryside for more than a decade, and works for the fruit industry. He helps the region produce top quality fruit. His job is to steer preventive pest-control efforts that protect harvests from mostly unseen enemies, mainly the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, or Medfly as it´s notoriously known.

Mr. Rial´s work means millions of dollars a year for Argentina´s fruit industry. Lately, it´s helped Patagonia achieve a coveted status in agriculture and trade circles - officially recognized in late 2005 as a "fruit-fly-free" region by the US Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the USA´s top agricultural inspectorate and respected gateway to global trade.

"The recognition took us over four years to achieve. It´s like a stamp of quality that breeds confidence in the fruit we produce," Mr. Rial says with pride, pointing to "fruit-fly-free zone" labels placed on every box readied for shipment at one of the region´s 300 packing plants.

The new-earned status makes fruits such as Patagonia pears even more marketable and tempting to consumers the world over. It specifically allows producers to export fresh fruits and vegetables to lucrative USA markets without going through tough quarantine requirements. That alone translates into annual savings of US $2 million, calculates Argentina´s National Food Safety and Quality Service (SENASA).

The elimination of costly quarantine treatments applies to export markets beyond the USA as well. Patagonia sends more than three million boxes of top-quality pears and apples to the USA every year - and about 30 million boxes to countries in South America and Europe.

Opportunities now are opening for other fruits whose cultivation is rapidly expanding. New ground was broken over the past year, when 300 tons of Patagonia cherries were sold to US markets at holiday times in November and December alone, Mr. Rial reports.

The Medfly lives for only about one month in temperate climates, yet is one of the world´s most voracious agricultural pests - a veritable "superfly" that global trade and tourism have carried to places far from its natural African home. If not controlled, the invading fly devours ripening fruit. Females pierce the fruit´s skin to lay hundreds of eggs that soon become hungry maggots creating infested mush.

Patagonia´s Medfly controls are strict and serious to make sure fruit flies stay out. At Neuquen airport, authorities screen passengers and their belongings, using X-ray scanners and surveillance. Inspectors check and confiscate any apples, pears, cherries or other fruit you may want to bring in.

"Even dogs, mainly beagles and labradors, are trained to sniff out fruit," says Mr. Rial. "We know that fruit carrying the Medfly comes here from the outside, from tourists, from packages sent to workers, even from people trying to smuggle food in. Just one fly maggot can put our entire harvests at risk."

Sometimes the flies get in, triggering emergency measures that include restrictions on all movement of fruit and agricultural products into and out of the region. "Quarantines don´t make me very popular with the locals," says Mr. Rial. "Producers want to kill me if it happens in high season. Jobs depend on fruit production. But nothing can move until we say so."

Fruit production and protection go hand-in-hand in Argentina. In most years, fruit exports bring in about half a billion dollars to the country´s economy, and in good years as much or more as exports of Argentina´s famous beef. Patagonia pears are market leaders, with Packham´s Triumph, Williams, and Beurre D´Anjou varieties valued around the world.

With that much at stake and limited federal government support, fruit producers are funding their own pest-control programme, Mr. Rial points out. In Patagonia, his employer, the Fundación Barrera Zoofitosanitaria Patagónica, rhythmically known as FunBaPa, leads the way.

The emergency programme includes stricter monitoring at traffic checkpoints, intensified fly trapping and spraying in fields, and more frequent release of sterile male Medflies to saturate target zones. The operation´s scope and status is mapped using a satellite-directed global information system.

"We use a powerful combination of measures," Mr. Rial says. "There have never been any fruit production losses here due to the Medfly."

Experts from the IAEA and UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) advised Argentine authorities in the 1990s on the use of SIT as part of the country´s integrated pest-control strategy. "Their advice was a key, especially at the beginning when we faced so many decisions," Mr. Rial recalls.

A province away, the country´s SIT facility in Mendoza - where fruit-fly-free zones already have been established - also gained from FAO/IAEA expertise. Researchers at IAEA laboratories near Vienna developed a genetic sexing strain of Medfly for mass-rearing factories. The Mendoza plant produces the strain to rear only male sterile flies for SIT campaigns in Patagonia and elsewhere. The work benefits more than 15,000 fruit and vegetable farmers nationwide.

Mendoza Eyes New Frontiers

The recorded success opens new frontiers.

In Buenos Aires, the Ministry of Agriculture in 2005 agreed to fund a new fruit fly management programme involving the SIT. It will cover an area of 56,000 hectares in the northeast provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes that are home to profitable citrus fruit orchards. Argentina sells nearly half a million tonnes of lemons, tangerines, and other citrus fruit to overseas markets, mostly in Europe, every year.

The decision rippled through Mendoza, where Oscar de Longo and teams at the province´s agricultural safety and quality institute, known as ISCAMEN, prepare for a busier future. The old Medfly plant is being shut down, and a new $10 million SIT facility partly funded by the World Bank is set to brace Argentina´s prevention and eradication programme.

The new plant is near the productive southwest Uco Valley, one of four Mendoza oases. Vineyards and fruit farms line a dry and dusty landscape fed from waters of snow-tipped Andes mountains. Beyond the many grapes, farmers there mostly grow pears, peaches, plums and apples for export to Russia, Spain and other European countries.

"The fields in Uco Valley are free of Medflies," says Mr. de Longo, who helped plant some of the area´s first fruit trees decades ago and today heads Mendoza´s Medfly eradication programme. "Hail and codling moths are now bigger threats to pear and apple trees."

The new Medfly SIT plant can´t stop the hail, he notes wryly. But it will double the country´s production of sterile male flies to 300 million a week for supplying operations in Mendoza, Patagonia, and nearby San Juan province.

Next up for SIT could be the codling moth. In September 2006, ISCAMEN opened a pilot facility for rearing sterile moths. Field trials in Mendoza are part of new integrated pest-control steps designed to fight the wormy enemy with less reliance on insecticides. -- Lothar Wedekind, IAEA Division of Public Information