Former Director-General  José Graziano da Silva
An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

Joining efforts for tackling the Red Palm Weevil

A pest that destroys palm trees by eating them from the inside threatens to wipe out palm species — and the palm industry — unless global and coordinated action is taken swiftly.

The Red Palm Weevil is the most dangerous and destructive pest of palm trees worldwide, including date- and coconut-producing palms in Asia and the Middle East, as well as ornamental palms around the Mediterranean and in Europe.

Originating from South East Asia, the pest has spread rapidly through the Middle East and North Africa over the last three decades, and by last year it had even reached the UK.

It is endemic in many countries and has inflicted huge economic and social costs, including on food security and livelihoods across many communities.

Part of the problem is that the Red Palm Weevil is an invisible killer. Early detection is difficult because there are few externally-visible signs that the pest has taken over a tree. Field teams must look for small insect entry holes in the base or crown of each tree.

Lapses in quarantine procedures are also to blame: The invasive pest moves from one country to another mainly through infested planting material.

Millions of dollars are lost annually because of the Red Palm Weevil. In Italy, Spain and France, economic losses linked to the weevil were around €90 million by 2013.

Over the last 30 years, efforts have been deployed to control and contain the pest, with mixed results largely because of the absence of a clear, well-coordinated strategy.

Date palms have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. They have sustained human life and livelihoods in hot and infertile areas and are a symbol of life, culture and civilization.

Dates are a major crop that contributes to national economies, and are an important source of income and food for rural communities.

This industry is at stake if the pest is not stopped.

Eradicating the Red Palm Weevil is possible. In May 2016, the Canary Islands was the first territory in the world to eliminate the pest after it was first detected in 2005. Part of the solution was developing a geographic information system to collect data from infested trees to better manage pest control operations.

We need to take advantage of these types of technologies, and continue working together to develop more effective and advanced solutions.

Research is already underway for the development of natural pest-control sprays or other products. Other innovative solutions include dogs that can sniff out infestations, detection through thermal imaging and highly-sensitive microphones that can hear larvae feeding inside a tree. Successful trials have led to researchers now working on user-friendly, low-cost listening devices with digital signal processing.

Stopping the spread of Red Palm Weevil also requires countries’ commitment to strictly enforcing international controls on movement of infested material across borders. Sharing information, experiences, expertise and knowledge across borders will benefit our mission.

FAO has been working with national authorities and communities on improving date palm production, including water management techniques and adding value through harvesting, processing and packaging techniques.

From March 29-31, FAO and the International Center for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) are co-organizing a scientific consultation and high-level meeting on Red Palm Weevil (RPW) management. The scientific consultation will bring together representatives of the regulatory authorities (National Plant Protection Organization) and experts from countries affected by the Red Palm Weevil, international scientists, developers of technologies involved in RPW management and other stakeholders.

The expected outcome of the scientific consultation will be a defined multi-disciplinary and multi-regional program and strategy for the management and containment of Red Palm Weevil.

By joining forces, we can contain and control this invisible killer.

This Opinion Article was originally published by Arab News