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Nuclear Technique Helps Dominican Republic Eradicate Insect Pest That Hurt Agricultural Sector

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

(Producer: L. Potterton/IAEA)

The Dominican Republic has eradicated a major agricultural pest, the Mediterranean fruit fly, by using a nuclear technique with the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Caribbean country today officially declared in a ceremony in the capital Santo Domingo that it is free of the insect, two years after an outbreak led to considerable damage to its agricultural industry.

The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), provided assistance to the Dominican Republic to suppress the agricultural pest using the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT). This form of insect birth control uses radiation to sterilize a large number of male insects, which are then released to mate with wild females. Since these do not produce any offspring, the insect population is suppressed, or eliminated, over time.

The effort to help the Dominican Republic was carried out together with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the International Regional Organisation for Plant and Animal Health (OIRSA), the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture and the joint Guatemala-Mexico-USA Moscamed Programme.

The outbreak of the Mediterranean fruit fly in the Dominican Republic was first reported in March 2015 near the popular tourist city of Punta Cana, and rapidly spread to a 2,000 square kilometres-area in the east of the country. Although 200 kilometres away from producing areas, an immediate import ban was placed on several agricultural products, including avocado, citrus fruits, papaya and peppers, by major trading partners, such as the United States, Haiti and Japan. The ban resulted in an estimated loss of US $42 million in fruit and vegetable exports in 2015 alone, putting thousands of jobs at risk. As a result of the eradication efforts, it has since been gradually lifted.

“Today’s declaration that the fruit fly has been eradicated represents a remarkable achievement for the Dominican Republic, the IAEA and its partners,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. “The Agency is pleased to have been able to help the country to regain access to key export markets.”

“The Mediterranean fruit fly is one of the most damaging agricultural pests in the world,” said IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of Nuclear Sciences and Applications Aldo Malavasi, attending the ceremony in Santo Domingo. “The insect attacks several varieties of fruit and vegetable, and spreads very fast.” A female fly can lay more than 300 eggs, and in as little as six months, a population can establish itself in a country the size of the Dominican Republic.

The IAEA provided assistance – through its Technical Cooperation programme – to adapt a facility in the town of Higuey to host sterile male flies brought in from El Pino, Guatemala. From October 2015, over 4 billion sterile flies were released in the affected areas. The Agency, together with the FAO and USDA, also trained local personnel in setting up surveillance systems throughout the country to trap and identify the fly, and in complementary pest control methods, such as tree pruning, the destruction of potential host fruits and the selective use of pesticides.

“We are very grateful for the IAEA assistance,” Agriculture Minister Angel Estevez said. “Through this transfer of knowledge, the Dominican Republic is now well prepared to tackle any possible future outbreaks, and can quickly respond to eradicate it.”

The SIT is an environmentally-friendly and effective method to suppress or eradicate selected insect populations, and is particularly effective in areas that are difficult to reach with other pest-control methods, such as mass-trapping and the application of insecticide. The method is used on a routine basis in countries like the United States to keep harmful insects at bay, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly and the screwworm fly.

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