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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2015 / 04 

Virginia Tech gets jump on destructive insect in Nepal

April 20, 2015

Tomato damaged by tuta.
Douglas G. Pfeiffer holds a tomato damaged by Tuta absoluta in Senegal.

A tiny moth, Tuta absoluta, has caused millions of dollars of crop losses in Europe, Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, and North Africa. Now it is headed for Nepal. For the first time Virginia Tech scientists – who've battled the pest for years – have put measures in place before it invades.

For a decade, scientists confronted the South American tomato leafminer only after the fact. It ravaged crops in one country after the next, jumping from its native South America to Spain in 2006.

Now, when it enters Nepal, as scientists say it inevitably will, farmers will be armed to confront it.

Defensive tactics are crucial because the pest can destroy 80 to 100 percent of a tomato farmer's yield, says Virginia Tech scientist Muni Muniappan, who directs the USAID-funded Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech. Tomatoes aren't the only targets. The moth can also lay waste to eggplant, potato, pepper, and other food crops.

Muniappan organized a workshop in Nepal titled "Tuta absoluta: An impending threat to tomato production in Nepal" last month in Nepal to teach farmers and government officials techniques such as pheromone traps, biological and plant-based insecticides, and using the pest's own natural enemies against it.

Unfortunately, even the most up-to-date science won't keep the moth, with a female that produces some 260 eggs in a lifetime, from invading.

"There is no silver bullet," Muniappan says. "We cannot stop it, but we can slow it down."

The moth, no larger than a comma, can cause devastation that is "unimaginable," says Sulav Paudel, Virginia Tech's program coordinator in Nepal. "We saw this workshop as a chance to prevent our farmers from suffering."

Experts from agricultural organizations were also part of the workshop, where more than 70 participants devised a plan that includes monitoring markets and fields for the presence of larvae, establishing plant quarantines, and raising public awareness.

"The first hurdle is lack of information," Muniappan says. He has conducted workshops on two continents and consulted with growers and politicians about how to combat the menace.

"Farmers don’t necessarily know what’s eating away at their crops or how to defend themselves against it," he says. "If this information reaches farmers before the pest does, they will have the ammunition they need to fight it."

The Virginia Tech lab has been working in Nepal for the past 10 years. The work is managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

The tomato leafminer's next projected invasion is Bangladesh, and – by invitation of the government – Virginia Tech's scientists are putting together a workshop for scientists and farmers in that country as well.

Kelly Izlar contributed to this report.

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