Nuclear Technology Boosting Guatemalan Agriculture

IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization deployed sterile insect technology to help curb the fruit fly population by sterilizing insects en masse. Higher sales of tomatoes, bell peppers, and papaya resulted, increasing pest control and packing/canning jobs in Guatemala.

IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization are using sterile insect technology, a nuclear application, to curb the Mediterranean fruit fly population in Guatemala. Higher sales of tomatoes, bell peppers, and papaya have resulted, while pest control and packing/canning jobs increased in Guatemala, the nuclear safety agency reports.

"While prices slumped over the past decade for Guatemala's traditional exports of coffee, banana and sugar cane, sales of tomatoes quadrupled to $10 million in 2010 from $2.5 million in 2007, with export income from bell peppers roughly tripling to $3.2 million in 2010, and papaya doubling, also to $3.2 million. These increases vaulted Guatemala into first place as the largest Central American supplier to its nearest major international market, the USA, and created hundreds of rural jobs, typically for men in field pest control and for women in the packing and transportation services industries," according to the agency.

The goal is to eradicate the invasive fruit fly in the northern part of the country bordering Mexico and to suppress the native pest fruit fly population. The flies "do great damage to agricultural world trade, typically shutting countries out of an export market if they cannot prove produce to be pest free. Given a short shelf life, fruits and vegetables tend to be the most valuable of agricultural export products," the agency reports.

"If you want to export and also avoid the application of costly post-harvest treatments that can reduce produce quality, you have to get rid of both the Mediterranean and native fruit flies," said Jesus Reyes Flores, an entomologist of the FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. "Sterile insect technology consists of rearing massive quantities of the same pest, sterilizing it by irradiation through a simple radiation device that otherwise causes no harm to the insect. The male insects are fed and later systematically freed in the fields, where they then mate with the pest insects present in the field, producing no progeny so that after the continuous release over several years, the pest disappears."

Guatemala has the largest sterile insect production facility in the world. Some 3,000 sterile males are needed per hectare to suppress the pests in heavily farmed areas, such as coffee plantations. IAEA field work in Croatia has shown that areas where there are fewer fruit and vegetable types grown require only 500 to 1,000 sterile flies per hectare.

IAEA has provided support to three Guatemala projects since 2001 against native fruit flies and also technical expertise to the trilateral Mediterranean Fruit Fly Programme, run by the governments of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. The Guatemalan program soon will be self sustaining, IAEA says.

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