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Nuclear Science Enriching Mediterranean Valley


A joint IAEA/FAO project saves cash crops from the medfly's bite. (Photo credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

Truckloads of brightly coloured green and red bell peppers are dispatched from the Arava Valley in Israel, destined for high value markets in the USA. In seven years, production from the valley has grown from a $1 million dollar business to now bring $50 million a year in exports.

The turnaround came after Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority teamed up with the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to wipe-out medfly in this shared region in the Mediterranean Basin.

The female medfly attacks the bell peppers - and other ripening fruit and vegetables - by piercing the skin and laying its eggs inside. When the maggots hatch they feed off the fruit´s pulp. Total annual losses from medfly in the region amounts to around US $300 million. Infested produce lock farmers out of key export markets that are governed by tight regulations to stop the spread of this menacing pest.

After attempts to control the medfly using insecticides and bait sprays failed, the Middle Eastern countries turned to the IAEA and FAO for support. A radiation technology known as the sterile insect technique (SIT) is used to stop the medflies from breeding. In fly rearing laboratories, medfly eggs are bathed in warm water - a process that kills the female embryos but doesn´t harm the male embryos. In the pupae stage, the males are irradiated until sexually sterile. They are then released on mass in the Arava Valley on both sides of the Israeli and Jordanian borders. As many as 15 million sterile male medflies are let loose each week.

It has crippled the regions´ medfly population and significantly reduced local farmers´ reliance on insecticides. Middle Eastern businesses, farmers and consumers alike are not the only winners. The IAEA/FAO medfly project is a platform that is bringing Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian experts together in partnership to solve a shared problem.

The IAEA and FAO first helped to set up pilot projects and supply sterile male medflies to Israel and Jordan in 1998. The Palestinian Authority joined the partnership one year later, and now has the capacity to adopt the technology. The IAEA funded the programme to the tune of $2 million dollars over seven years, helping to keep the Arava Valley medfly free, and expand the programme to Western Negev in Israel. USAID, through its Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) programme, has supported the three parties (Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories) with a $ 2.5 million grant from 2001 until 2005. Further plans are a foot to realise the "East Med" project, an ambitions plan to suppress the medfly from all infested areas of the continent.

The sterile male medflies were initially sourced from a mass rearing facility in Guatemala. The programme´s success led a private company to open a medfly rearing facility in Israel to keep pace with demands in Palestine, Israel and Jordan to successfully control this invasive pest.

An International Conference on Area-Wide Control of Insect Pests: Integrating the Sterile Insect and Related Nuclear and Other Techniques is being held at IAEA headquarters in Vienna 9-13 May 2005. See Story Resources for details.

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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