Virginia Tech entomologist Muni Muniappan has warned that no silver bullet exists to stop the spread of a destructive moth ravaging vegetable crops around the world – including its likely arrival in the United States. News in late May that Nigeria lost 80 percent of its tomato harvest underlines the urgency of measures in a Virginia Tech-led program to help stop the pest.
When Muniappan convened a group of plant protection scientists at the 18th International Plant Protection Congress in Berlin last year, the group called for steps, including quarantine, to prevent the pest's introduction to the United States and other countries.
Countries in the pest's path can expect at least the economic devastation of widespread crop loss and, at worst, an ensuing blow to the nutritional quality of the food supply in famine-prone regions. Crops other than tomato can be hit, including eggplant, potato, and pepper.
Without proper management techniques, the tomato leafminer's devastation is between 80 and 100 percent in terms of crop loss, Muniappan says.
Muniappan leads the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, which provides worldwide training and conferences in league with farmers, scientists, and governments to control the pest. The lab, in work underwritten by USAID, also collaborates with the Biocomplexity Institute at Virginia Tech on a project to model the pest's spread using human movement.
The pest, a native of South America, hitched a ride to Spain in 2006, spreading first through Europe and the Mediterranean and eventually into India and certain African nations. With no natural enemies outside of South America, it feeds voraciously. According to Muniappan, there is no quick fix to stop it.
So what can be done? Muniappan is working with governments to create early warning systems to detect the bug if it shows up. The Innovation Lab also trains farmers in control methods, such as trapping the males to prevent procreation and applying neem oil, a natural pesticide.
While the pest has not yet been recorded in the United States, Muniappan and other scientists suggest it is only a matter of time. Late last year, Devaiah Muruvanda, senior risk manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said, "Our domestic tomato industry could be severely affected. The United States is taking it … seriously."
In a radio interview last week, Muniappan told BBC news, "The U.S. has already introduced a regulation asking the countries where the pest has presented that to export tomatoes to the U.S., they should remove the stock and the green material on the top of the fruit before they pack it and ship it."
Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, said, "Given that these invasions are irreversible – and that this pest cannot be fully eradicated – it's heartening to know that scientists led by Virginia Tech are working on effective control. We are deploying top talent at several of America's top research institutions to help create solutions at a time when overcoming food insecurity is a chief concern of governments worldwide."
"We are employing every means at our disposal," Muniappan said of the research-and-education effort.
The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is a project of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.
Stephanie Parker contributed to this report.