Scientists find desert cure for date disease

Arab states are the largest producers and exporters of dates Copyright: Flickr/Doha Sam

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[ALGIERS] Poisonous plants from the Sahara desert have proven effective in killing a fungus that is ravaging date palms in Algeria and Morocco ― raising hopes that a cure might finally have been found for the century-old problem.

An Algerian research team said that four plants are effective against the fungus that causes Bayoud disease. The fungus, which spreads mostly through root contact, can currently only be tackled by isolating healthy palms from diseased counterparts. It has been termed a "plague to Saharan agriculture" by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The team, from Béchar University, tested extracts from the plants, which grow in the Algerian Sahara desert. People of south-west Algeria use the extracts as an antifungal traditional medicine.

The extracts successfully inhibited growth of Fusarium oxysporum forma specialis albedinis (FOA), which causes Bayoud disease.

The team, led by Abdelkrim Cheriti, director of the university’s Phytochemistry and Organic Synthesis Laboratory (POSL), announced its results at a press conference last month (11 November) and says it has a paper in press.

Cheriti pointed out that most desert plants produce substances that help them adapt to their environments and fend off diseases.

"We had the idea of using such metabolites, found in plants that grow in the same environment as the date palms and are able to resist Bayoud, to create an effective treatment for date palms," he told SciDev.Net.

A field trial of the treatment began in October in south-west Algeria and results are expected within three years.

"Bayoud inflicts serious damage on the production of dates in Algeria and North Africa, it has nearly wiped out many of the best strains of the tree that yield high quality dates," Ben Aichi Bachir, professor of economics at University of Mohamed Khidar Biskra, in Algeria, told SciDev.Net.

He added that "the new natural treatment, if approved after large-scale experiment, could help increase production of dates in the region, while decreasing their production costs". The new approach would be cheaper than current approaches to tackling the disease, he said.

But Nadia Bouguedoura, director of the laboratory of research in arid zones at Algeria’s University of Sciences and Technology Houari Boumediene, cautioned that all new approaches to tackling Bayoud disease are still in the preliminary phase.

Bouguedoura said that the treatment is "a serious step on the road for finding a fundamental solution to the disease", but added that the research still "needs to be tested on the ground to confirm its results".

"Until it is approved, genetic control by breeding tree strains resistant to Bayoud disease remains the only valid way [of controlling the disease]," she said.

According to the FAO, the Arab states are the main producers and exporters of dates. Around 70 per cent of the 120 million date palm trees are found in Arab countries, with an annual production value of more than US$1 billion.

It says that "the disease continues to advance relentlessly to the east" and that "it will certainly pose serious problems of human, social and economic nature to other date-producing areas of the world".