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How a Nuclear Technique is Saving Citrus Fruits in Morocco, One Fly at a Time

Morocco fruit fly

The production of citrus fruits in Morocco is under threat from the Mediterranean fruit fly. The country is turning to a nuclear technique to help reduce crop losses and insecticide use. (Photo: 16:9clue/Flickr)

Citrus crop losses due to fruit flies along with insecticide use in Morocco are both expected to drop as the country begins to develop capacities in nuclear techniques as part of its pest control management plans. Known as the Mediterranean fruit fly, this insect is a key pest of Morocco’s production of citrus fruit — one of the country’s major domestic and export commodities. 

“The Mediterranean fruit flies can infest and destroy an entire crop, and without proper management, it can be a total loss for the season,” said Ahmed Bentouhami, Director General of the National Plant Protection Office of Morocco. The country produces over 2.3 million tonnes of citrus fruits, like oranges and clementines, per year, so these types of losses can have a significant economic impact, he said. “The sterile insect technique [a nuclear technique] is one tool that can be combined with others to effectively manage the fruit fly problem.” 

Environmentally friendly alternative

The sterile insect technique, or SIT, is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly method of pest control that uses ionizing radiation to sterilize male fruit flies that are mass-produced in special rearing facilities. The sterile males are systematically released mainly by air into fly-infested areas, where they mate with wild females that consequently do not produce offspring. As a result, if systematically applied over larger areas, this technique can effectively and sustainably suppress pest populations.

Currently, Morocco relies primarily on chemical pesticides to manage this insect pest, but this is not sustainable as there are negative environmental effects, resistance to pesticides is increasing and some consumers are concerned about the extensive use of chemicals, said Moulay M’hamed Loultiti, President of Maroc Citrus, the country’s association of citrus producers.

“Many people want less chemicals on their food; there can be residues from the chemical pesticides, and these can get into the consumer goods, so we must carefully regulate these chemicals,” said M’hamed Loultiti. “Over time, these chemicals are also becoming less effective, which means more would have to be used. SIT offers another way to safely address the flies so we do not have to rely only on chemicals.”

With this project, we expect to be able to eventually produce around 200 million sterile male fruit flies per week and release them over 100 000 hectares of production areas. Step-by-step, we hope to increase the area that we cover to extend over a large part of the country.
Ahmed Bentouhami, Director General of the National Plant Protection Office of Morocco
Mediterranean Fruit Fly

Morocco is developing its own mass-rearing and release centre for using the sterile insect technique to control fruit flies. (Photo: K. Schulz/Flickr)

Since 2008, the Moroccan Government has been importing over 8 million sterile male fruit flies per week, initially from Portugal and currently Spain as part of a pilot project implemented with technical support from the Joint Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the IAEA. The project aimed at managing the fruit fly pest in a 5000 hectare pilot area of the Souss Valley in southern Morocco, where the country produces most of its citrus fruits. 

Following the success of this project, the National Plant Protection Office (ONNSA), the Regional Office of Agriculture in Souss Massa (ORNVA-SM) and the Citrus Producers (Maroc Citrus) signed an agreement under the Minister of Agriculture of Morocco to establish an area-wide SIT programme against the Mediterranean fruit fly in the Agadir region, including the construction of the country’s own sterile fly mass-rearing and release centre. This will allow Morocco to eliminate the high cost of importing sterile flies from abroad, as well as enable the country to produce larger quantities of sterile males to expand the use of SIT over the whole Agadir area. 

Public-private partnership 

Collaboration between the public and private sectors in Morocco is at the foundation of this new project. This relationship is expected to facilitate the development of an effective management system, a business plan and the adoption of an external advisory committee.     

“There is a significant benefit for the government to work with the private sector. The private sector will help to provide financing and resources to make this project possible,” said Bentouhami. This partnership will also help in meeting quality control standards, he said. 

“In the public sector, we are responsible for signing certificates that the fruit is of a good enough quality, and with the involvement of the private sector on this project, we can have more confidence that the fruit meets these certification standards,” said Bentouhmai.

For the private sector, a project like this provides another tool for managing these flies, which can be used alongside carefully regulated pesticides to help reduce fruit losses on a wide scale, said M’hamed Loultiti. “There are already examples of private organizations working with the public sector in Morocco to develop new technologies and to pursue these types of projects, so we see a lot of benefit from this collaboration.”

With this partnership and technical assistance through the IAEA Technical Cooperation Programme, Morocco will soon be able to produce its own sterile flies to release throughout the whole Souss Valley area, eventually covering over 40 000 hectares of citrus crops and surrounding areas. Using SIT as a component of an integrated pest management approach, the country can expect significant reductions in crop losses and insecticide use due to the fruit flies, Bentouhami noted.

“The IAEA and FAO are providing technical support to the country, knowledge and expertise, some equipment, and a particular strain of flies that was developed at the FAO/IAEA Agriculture and Biotechnology Laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, specifically for our use,” said Bentouhami. “With this project, we expect to be able to eventually produce around 200 million sterile male fruit flies per week and release them over 100 000 hectares of production areas. Step-by-step, we hope to increase the area that we cover to extend over a large part of the country.”