Amman, Jordan – Zeid Sinokrot was an unemployed engineer in 2012 when he decided to join the family business, growing dates on a farm outside Jericho.
But his father’s date palms began dying one by one, consumed from the inside by insects that were impossible to see until the trees began to keel over. His father eventually sold the farm four years later.
” “I knew that I wanted to solve the problem,” Sinokrot said to Al Jazeera. “Trees were falling, and farmers were afraid.”
The Sinokrot’s farm was under attack from the red palm weevil, a small insect native to South Asia that attacks more than 40 types of palms and causes more than $1bn in losses in the Middle East, Africa, and North America annually. The pests spend 80 percent of their lives inside trees and are almost invisible until it’s too late, leaving farmers with few defences aside from drenching their fields in pesticides as a preventive measure. Smart farming, which uses AI to detect pests is helping the farmers in Jordan and the government of Jordan fight them without chemical sprays. Sinokrot leads the way.
Palmer, a startup that uses audio AI, detects tiny sounds in trees to identify signs of pest infestations and makes them aware. The partnership between Palmear and the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture was established in November to prevent, treat, and monitor weevil infestations. The ministry now has a dashboard that shows all the trees that have been screened with AI and is gearing up to cover the entire country using a combination of data from farmers and ministry employees.
Sinokrot estimates that 16 percent of date palms in the country are currently being monitored through Palmear, either by private farmers or the ministry. Farmers using Palmear often scan their trees every 45 days, and the information is automatically shared with the ministry to track any spread.
“Early detection and treatment are the most important things to us,” Imad Al-Awad, director of Plant Protection and Phytosanitation at the agriculture ministry, told Al Jazeera. “We benefit a lot from this AI to know if there’s a hot spot. We can warn people about it and protect the date industry.”
Bringing AI to the farm
On a frigid morning in January, Sinokrot visited Hatem Dabash at his small date farm in the Jordan Valley. As they talked, the husks of palm trees lay in front of them. The hollowed trunk was a sign that the red palm weevil had caused the tree to die.
“The weevils are a dangerous problem,” said Dabash as he strolled through rows of palm trees on his farm. It could spread throughout the whole area if it isn’t controlled. It’s a constant battle.”
Like other farmers under attack from the weevils, Dabash burned the badly infected palm tree last year to prevent further spread. That tree was the worst out of several weevil infestation cases Dabash faced last year. The rest were treated with stronger insecticides. They killed the insects in his palms but also stained his crops with toxic chemicals that ruined his year’s harvest. Trees need to be treated with pesticides for several months before they are able produce safe-to-eat dates. The harvest window is closed by then.
To reduce the risks of these insects, Dabash has welcomed the introduction AI in his tree monitoring. It allows him to catch any cases early and treat them before the insects can spread to nearby trees.
Red palm weevils lay eggs deep within the palm tree trunks. Their larvae then eat the trunks of the palm tree and destroy it.
The surface shows no signs of weevils until the palm tree reaches an advanced stage of infestation, leading panicked farmers to drench their fields in pesticides.
But Sinokrot arrived with his team to assist Dabash. They crouched down and slid a needle through the soft, patchy bark on the bottom of the tree. They listened to what was happening by using a mic in the tip of the needle. Red palm weevil larvae make tiny sounds when they chew on tree trunks. Sinokrot’s handheld device can capture these sounds and filter them through an algorithm in the Palmear app.
After a few seconds, a green check mark appeared on Sinokrot’s mobile phone, and Dabash breathed a sigh of relief. It was healthy.
To build their technology, Sinokrot and his colleagues needed to capture weevil noises and train their algorithm to detect infestations before they became visible. “We lived with the bugs to understand them,” Sinokrot told Al Jazeera, flipping through pictures of larvae.
His team started growing date palms in small sound-proof rooms in the basement of their shared house in the Jordan Valley. They then raised weevil larvae and artificially infected the palms, using high-powered microphones to listen as the bugs feasted. Their algorithm was based on these recordings, and can quickly identify weevils with a soundbite.
Their work has evolved since their basement days. Larger plantations now have their Palmear devices for monitoring their palms. For smaller farmers, like Dabash’s, Sinokrot makes periodic visits to check the trees. This helps keep costs low.
Sinokrot and his team are scaling up the technology. The sensors will be mass produced so more farmers have the ability to download it, share their data with the ministry of agriculture and monitor their trees. The Palmear team also hopes to establish similar monitoring systems in other countries suffering from weevil infestations.
Palmear is part of a burgeoning AI farming market that analysts expect to top $2. 5bn by 2025. Other types of smart farming use advanced imaging and soil sensors.
“Palmear is using data science in a very smart and helpful way,” said Naihla Al-Madi, associate professor in computing sciences and head of the Data Science Department at Princess Sumaya University in Amman. “I tell my students that if you have a computer and you have the data, the path is open for innovation.”
Tiny, unfamiliar enemies
Invasive insects cost the global economy around $70bn a year, and those losses are expected to increase by 36 percent by 2050, largely due to global warming. This means that farmers will have to be more wary of small, unknown enemies.
Although the red palm weevil comes from Southeast Asia, the insects can fly up to 50km (30 miles) a day, enabling them to spread across East Asia, North Africa, North America, Europe and the Middle East. A single female weevil can lay up to 300 eggs inside a palm trunk.
” We need to be proactive in dealing with these pests as there can be large crop losses,” Hiba Obeidat (a pest control engineer from Jordan’s Ministry of Agriculture) said.
As the weevils topple trees around the world, they are simultaneously releasing carbon dioxide into the air and accelerating global warming. The conventional solution of turning to pesticides often makes matters worse, killing valuable pollinators like bees and releasing chemicals into the surrounding environment.
” The problem with pesticides in general is that they can remain in the environment,” stated Timothy Purvis an environmental scientist based in Jordan. “It reaches a point where it’s leaking into other ecosystems.”
Farmers typically treat date palms with preventive pesticides five times a year. AI monitoring has helped reduce the farmers’ use of these preventive chemicals by an average of 40 percent although the exact amounts vary by farm. This technology allows farmers to use precision spraying techniques in order to focus on specific fields.
Some farmers have nearly eliminated their use of insecticides. According to Ibrahim Kilani, an environmental engineer in Jordan: “AI-powered tools can help farmers make more informed decisions about when and where to apply pesticides, reducing the risk of over-application and minimising their impact on the environment.”
The reduction in pesticides can improve soil and water quality, boosting the health of surrounding ecosystems and agricultural areas.
Saving the dates
Jordan produced about 30,000 tonnes of dates in 2021 and exported around 30 percent of its harvest, according to the Jordan Dates Association. Yearly sales in the Jordanian date sector total around $140m.
Although other types of insects, like the pollen worm, also threaten palms, the red palm weevils are the single most destructive pests for 40 types of trees in different parts of the world.
Al-Awad estimated that the red palm weevils threaten about 4,900 hectares (12,100 acres) of land and about 700,000 trees. With each tree valued at about $700, the risk to Jordan’s economy could reach nearly half a billion dollars if left unmonitored and untreated.
But it’s more than that: For Jordanians, a historic plant is at stake. “Jordan is famous for the Dead Sea, Petra and Medjool dates,” said Yazan Nabulsi, a stakeholder in the Medjool Village date plantation, which has nearly 20,000 trees. AI has helped him screen trees and perform targeted treatments, cutting the plantation’s use of chemicals by more than 30 percent.
Ahmad Al Falah Tamara Farms, a large plantation with more than 10,000 trees, has nearly stopped using insecticides because of the technology.
“We’re proud of the impact we’re having on the environment,” said Anais Al-Ghananim, an agricultural engineer who works with Palmear. “We started it here in Jordan, and we’re excited for it to spread to the whole world.”