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Medfly Suppression With Sterile Males is a Bridge to Peace in the Middle East

Medfly suppression with sterile males is a bridge to peace

Scientists, politicians, and farmers from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are winning a long but largely invisible fight. Their common foe: the Mediterranean fruit fly, or medfly, one of the world’s most destructive agricultural pests. Among their allies: the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture and the tools of nuclear science and technology. The result of this unique joint activity in the region is higher production, lower use of pesticides, and increased fruit and vegetable production for local markets and for export.

In this region where military no-fly zones typically rule, a plane loaded with a unique cargo of 7 million sterilized male flies makes a two-hour flight between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. It is the only plane authorized to fly freely in this region.

Twice a week, this unlikely “fly bomber” releases millions of sterile males into the air, allowing them to swarm into the Arava/Araba Valley shared by Israel and Jordan. The medflies are bred for birth control so any mating of these sterile males with wild virgin females of the pest populations yields no offspring. If left to multiply in the wild, medflies wreak havoc on citrus and many other fruits and vegetables, quickly turning crops into infested mush.

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

That’s what is happening in the Arava/Araba Valley, using a pest to fight a pest, with a unique and winning partnership between Israel and Jordan. The Joint Division has supported the project since the mid-1990s, and is currently expanding to other areas which also include the Palestinian Authority.

For Israeli farmers, success means they can sell produce, such as bell peppers, to lucrative export markets such as the United States, where imported fruit and vegetables must come from fruit-fly-free areas. The bell peppers are grown inside enormous greenhouses – cool oases of reds and oranges on lush green plants – that dot the desert landscape. The SIT programme has helped convince tough regulators in the USA and elsewhere that the Arava/Araba Valley’s production is free of infestation.

As a result, bell pepper production in the Arava/Araba Valley has grown a hundredfold since the programme started, and increased from less than US $1 million in exports a year in 1998 to US $150 million in exports today. With the use of SIT, the need for pesticides to control the medfly has fallen significantly, benefitting exports to the Europe.

For Jordanian farmers, yields have improved, and fresh farm produce is rising as are exports to their Gulf neighbours and, recently, to Eastern European markets. There also is better quality fruit for the local market because the medfly is not the problem it once was.

The Joint Division helped set up pilot projects and supplied 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 Joint Division funded the partnership for many years, as did the USA which provided a four-year, US $2.5 million grant.

The sterile flies are now bred in a commercial mass-rearing facility in Israel called Bio-Fly, run by specialists who received training at the Joint Division’s laboratory near its headquarters in Vienna, as well as in Chile. It now produces 20 million sterile male flies each week for release over the valley to mate with wild females.

Further north, the situation is very similar. Farmers were relying heavily on pesticides to control medflies and other pests which have been known to destroy up to 25 percent of their crops. Fortunately, the science alliance has been expanded to this area and in both the West Bank and Jordan’s northern valley, Palestinian and Jordanian fruit growers have started releasing sterile flies. Hopes are high that the integrated use of SIT will help them reduce the damage this pest inflicts on their produce.

In the days up until the mid-1990s, mistrust clouded the medfly partnership, but years of cooperation and communication since then have paid off. With the help of the Joint Division, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli technicians have been brought together at the same discussion table to develop future plans for jointly controlling this and other pests in their common areas and for using available sterile flies from the facility in Israel. For the region’s agricultural leaders, the success of the medfly project feeds hope. In recognizing the three partners working together to protect their shared region, a former Israeli minister called the medfly a “bridge to peace”.

Last update: 07 Mar 2018


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