x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Farmers told to use fewer chemicals

To feed us and earn a living, farmers must defeat any number of enemies, including the red palm weevil, but now with fewer chemicals.

Farmers in al Gharbia are being taught greener methods of dealing with pests.
Farmers in al Gharbia are being taught greener methods of dealing with pests.

For years, farmers have stressed quantity over quality when it comes to growing fruits and vegetables, because their incomes primarily came from government subsidies that paid them to plant and harvest; bringing the products to market was often an afterthought.

Now, the government says, if farmers want to profit from their work, they will have to improve the quality of their crops as well as their farming practices.

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority wants farmers to reduce pesticide use by 25 per cent and make the switch to organic fertilisers.

And it wants these things to happen by the end of 2013.

The authority is teaching farmers to fight pests - including the red palm weevil, a small insect that has had a large impact on UAE agriculture - in ways that are kinder to the environment, including the use of advanced greenhouses and disease-resistant crops.

The weevils, which have infested more than 1.2 million trees in al Gharbia alone, destroy a palm from within by interfering with the flow of nutrients through the trunks. Pesticides don't offer much help against the weevils, because they often fail to penetrate to the centre of the trees, where the insects live.

No matter the pest, heavy use of chemical pesticides destroys the quality of soil and contaminates fruits and vegetables.

In addition, insects and other organisms eventually become resistant to the toxins, which results in farmers having to use more and more chemicals.

One of the problems, according to Mohammed al Reyaysa, head of communications at the food control authority, is a lack of knowledge among farm workers.

Salem Ahmed Al Mansouri, who owns a farm in Liwa, says he has been using the same pesticides for almost a decade.

"In the past, they worked, but now it's not helping," he said. "The weevils are increasing."

One scheme, being installed across al Gharbia, involves the use of a pheromone trap - a bucket filled with a mixture of chemical scents and date oil that lures the pests away from the trees and into the traps.

One trap can handle 100 trees, and if used properly the method can treat 60-70 per cent of an infestation, according to some experts.

But many are sceptical.

Mohammed al Mazroui, a farmer in Madinat Zayed, says he has given up hope.

"If the weevils get in a tree, I'm at a point where I let them take it, then burn it so the infestation doesn't spread," he said. "I leave it up to destiny."

And the contamination of fruits and vegetables and the soil in which they are grown is already a major problem. A 2005 study found that more than 50 different insecticides, fungicides and herbicides were in widespread use on farms in Oman and the UAE. The study also discovered that many types of pests had developed immunities to the toxins.

The food control authority has said it will study the environmental impact of the fertilisers used on dates, tomatoes and other produce. It will also assess the efficiency of organic and slow-dissolving fertilisers.

Efforts to minimise the use of fertilisers and pesticides are part of the authority's mission to make local farming more competitive while reducing water usage by 40 per cent.

mdetrie@thenational.ae