Lebanese ‘white gold’ under threat from insect invaders
Since the late 1990s, an insidious invader has been spreading inexorably across the Mediterranean.
Native to the Pacific coast of North America, the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) was accidentally introduced to Italy, most likely carried by timber shipments from the United States. From there, it has slowly advanced across Europe and parts of the Middle East, where they have devastated the local stone pine forests.
“Every year, we have a new record number of insects attacking new areas and new countries all over the world,” said Nabil Nemer, Associate Professor at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik’s Department of Agriculture and Food Engineering, tells The New Arab. “Wherever there are stone pines, it is causing a lot of problems for the production of these trees.”
For pine growers in Lebanon today, where pine nuts have long been referred to as ‘white gold’ because of their value, this is a devastating blow that has struck at the worst possible time.
Because it takes three years for the pine cones to grow and mature to the point where the seeds are ready for harvesting, it was not until around 2012 that farmers began to realise that something was eating their crops.
“Before 2010, Lebanon produced about 1,200 tons a year of pine nuts,” explains Elias Naemeh, Head of the Syndicate of Pine Seed Agriculturers in Lebanon. “That was $130-140 million a year. I myself am a grower and – before the bug came – I was producing about 16 tons of pine kernels a year. Now, I’m getting less than 100 kilogrammes.”
This shocking discovery prompted the farmers to take action, forming the Syndicate of Pine Seed Farmers to better coordinate their efforts with various ministries within Lebanon’s government and find a solution to the problem.
Thanks to high temperatures and low rainfall, the insects have thrived in Lebanon. They feed on the sap of the pine cones themselves, causing desiccation and preventing the immature seeds from forming properly, with dramatic results.
Because it takes three years for the pine cones to grow and mature to the point where the seeds are ready for harvesting, it was not until around 2012 that farmers began to realise that something was eating their crops
“We’ve lost 75-80 percent of large pine nuts and 95 percent of smaller pine nuts,” said Naemeh. “The losses have been great. We started looking into it with universities and research centers, but we haven’t found a solid solution.
“The growers used to live comfortably, with more than 60,000 families working with each to grow and harvest the pines,” he explained. “Usually, [we would] sell to the UAE, America and Europe. When we sell pine nuts, we get fresh dollars into the country. In these circumstances we cannot afford to let this industry fall. We should be expanding this industry and growing pines in the areas of mountain that are just sat empty.”
|The Qsaybeh pine forest, east of Beirut [The Syndicate of Pine Seed Agriculturers in Lebanon]|
As is often the case in Lebanon at present, the largest impediment to finding an effective solution to the problem is one of money and political will. The country’s agriculture sector has gone underfunded and underdeveloped for years, lacking either modern equipment or effective land management.
Meanwhile, any action taken by the state to address the problem has been faltering at best.
"In Lebanon, there is nothing official and things have not been taken seriously"
“In Lebanon, there is nothing official and things have not been taken seriously,” said Nemer. “Since 2015 until now, there have been only two years where there has been spraying, and we spray only once per year. Either the insecticide is not purchased by the ministry or the helicopters that are used for spraying are not ready.”
Routine spraying of the affected forests from the air with contact insecticides could be an effective measure for eliminating the encroaching insects. In nearby Turkey, for example, spraying brought pine seed losses in their 2018 harvest down to just 15 percent.
“If the spraying had been [done] accurately and each year for at least three consecutive years, we would not have reached the drastic conditions we are witnessing this year,” explained Nemer. “When you have an alien species in any country, the first thing you need to do is remove it, and the best way to remove it is to make very harsh quarantine measures and kill it wherever it has spread.”
In 2019, no spraying took place at all, essentially guaranteeing that the current harvest will be completely destroyed.
With supplies of imported pesticides in short supply and prices rapidly rising against the US dollar due to rampant hyperinflation, growers have been left scrambling to acquire whatever they can or else seeking alternative solutions.
“If we can find alternatives, we would stop using pesticides straight away,” said Naemeh. “It’s bad for the environment and the forests themselves, as it kills beneficial [species].”
Better environmental practices, like removing any potential shelters from the forests where the insects will hibernate during the winter, could significantly decrease their numbers without the need for harmful, polluting chemicals, but it may not be enough to get rid of them for good.
“I don’t think we can eliminate this insect completely,” said Nemer. “We will have to live with it and manage the population in equilibrium with the stone pine ecosystem.”
Importing these predators into Lebanon could certainly reduce the numbers of the invaders, but there is an obvious risk that it could also further destabilise the natural balance
Fortunately, there are other potential ways that it may be possible to reduce the insects’ numbers to manageable levels, if not total eradication. In other affected countries, certain local insect species have begun to prey on the invasive interlopers, targeting their eggs and larvae. Importing these predators into Lebanon could certainly reduce the numbers of the invaders, but there is an obvious risk that it could also further destabilise the natural balance.
The insects have also been observed living on other similar species of tree, such as conifers, cedars and junipers. By planting new groves of these ‘trap’ plants, it may be possible to draw them away from the more valuable stone pines.
For now, Naemeh and the syndicate remain focused on monitoring the situation and supporting the local industry in this time of great uncertainty in the hopes of stopping the decline of one of their country’s most precious natural resources.
“We’re keeping tabs on it – with the government – so that we can help the growers treat the infestation,” he said. “We obtain seeds [and] saplings for the growers to give to them, as well as treatments and supplements. We also teach proper techniques to the growers; how to look after the trees; how to do the whole process, from the cones to the white pine nuts ready for eating.”
Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and cultural writer based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey