Military and Iraqi Agricultural Experts Exploring Date with Destiny

27 May 2003 | Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Iraqi, military and agricultural advisors are collaborating to determine if one of Iraq's leading cash crops will be spared from a plague of insects with modern chemicals or ancient predators.

Because the eggs of the indigenous Dubas bug, which feasts on dates, are hatching now, local growers are worried that without chemical control this year's date harvest will take a direct hit. Dates are Iraq's second leading agricultural export behind wool.

Military advisors active in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq are helping mediate a clash between area date growers, who believe pesticide spraying is essential to their short date season, and scientists promoting organic means of using ladybugs and other natural enemies to control the harmful Dubas.

Complicating the problem is the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that insists extensive aerial spraying is degrading Iraq's ecology.

Stuck in the middle, Army and Marine advisors have hosted several meetings in attempts to resolve the issue.

"At this late in the game, you have to rely on the experts," said Army Col. Jerry T. Gaskin of the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade of Norristown, Pa. "At this point there has to be an agreement between those experts and the local populace."

Gaskin heads the brigade's economics and commerce team.

Alfredo Impiglia, an agricultural officer with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said 14 survey teams soon will be dispatched to eight providences in southern Iraq to determine what effects a reduction in pesticide spraying during the last six years has had on Iraq's date palms as well as its ecosystem.

Aerial spraying, which usually takes place from April to August, had been curtailed during the last six years because of limited aircraft availability. Spraying operations were grounded completely this year after local aircraft were destroyed during the war. Impiglia said by comparing available spraying data from the last 10 years to recent findings should prove that natural predators of the Dubas bug are controlling the situation.

Opposed are many date growers who believe that traditional aerial spraying is the only answer to the destructive insects that feast on the valued fruit.

Interruption in spraying is a major concern to Iraqi date producers worried about Dubas bugs destroying much of this year's yield. Iskender Jawad Hassan Witwit, governor of providence of Babil, said he has been inundated with calls from growers seeking answers.

"We have urgent requests to spray the date palm, but they are too late," Witwit said.

Alis Al-Alvajy, a professor of biology at the University of Babylon in Al Hillah, is a spraying proponent. He said the reduction in spraying over the last five years has resulted in the widespread infestation of Iraqi date palms.

Because no spraying will likely occur in 2003, this year's date harvest could plummet 25 percent, or 44,000 tons, of 132,000 tons, Al-Alvajy predicted. This is compared to the 176,000 tons of dates harvested in 2002.

According to Impiglia, the data collected from the team surveys will be studied against older data taken during a period years ago when spraying was fully implemented to determine if natural predators have been able to reduce the Dubas' ranks.

"Our concern is that we want to do good, not harm, including what we do in the future," Impiglia said.

Impiglia said the agriculture would make presentations to remaining Iraqi providences as well.  

Witwit told those attending the latest meeting that he would await survey results, to determine what local officials will do in future growing seasons.

Army Col. Dale P. Foster, operations officer for the 358th, said the five-year gap when Iraq didn't do any widespread spraying will allow the FAO to compare upcoming survey results with information from past years to determine if spraying or an organic means is the key to healthy Iraqi date production.

"It positions Iraqi date growers for a better crop in the future," Foster said. "You should see an increase in the yields and quality."