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After Virginia Tech-led training, Bangladesh and Nepal confirm tomato-pest invasion

July 7, 2016

Bugs on a sticky trap
Sticky traps provided by the Virginia Tech-led Innovation Lab during a Tuta absoluta workshop allow partners in Nepal to identify the presence of the tomato leafminer in the country.

Two new countries have succumbed to the tomato leafminer invasion. Scientists in Bangladesh and Nepal – after training from a Virginia Tech-led program – have identified the same tiny moth responsible for the wholesale destruction of this year's Nigerian tomato crop.

Officials in Bangladesh and Nepal knew how to read clues because scientists taught them what to look for in two workshops last year. The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, headquartered at Virginia Tech, assembled teams of experts in Bangladesh and Nepal to prepare scientists and farmers for the pest's inevitable spread.

Examining photos and specimens that the two countries shipped to Blacksburg in the last few weeks, the lab's director at Virginia Tech, Muni Muniappan, confirmed that the pest in question is Tuta absoluta.

Tuta absoluta is the pest responsible for destroying the 2016 Nigerian tomato crop, reported nationally and internationally as a "tomato emergency." Muniappan convened a group of plant protection scientists at the 18th International Plant Protection Congress in Berlin last year, which brought about calls for quarantines and other measures to prevent the pest's likely introduction to the United States and elsewhere.

Scientists at the Virginia Tech-led Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab have spent the past several years raising awareness of the pest through workshops, especially in countries that might benefit most from anticipating the spread. This table shows where the pest has spread since 2006.

The Virginia Tech lab provided lures to scientists in Bangladesh and Nepal, who trapped the moths, enabling identification to take place. In Nepal, Sulav Paudel at iDE Nepal (an innovation lab partner), credited the training for the quick identification.

"Looking at the morphology, damage, and moth catch in the pheromone traps, we were sure that what we were seeing was Tuta," Paudel said.

Possible next sites for the tomato leafminer are Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. The pest cannot be destroyed, but employing integrated-pest-management practices focused on nontoxic means can lead to effective control, Muniappan said.

Devaiah Muruvanda, senior risk manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, quoted in an earlier report on the pest, said, "Our domestic tomato industry could be severely affected. The United States is taking it … seriously."

To delay or curtail its northward movement, the United States is helping Costa Rica suppress the pest, Muniappan said. In addition, the USDA is assisting states in using pheromone traps to monitor for early detection.

“With the proactive actions taken by the IPM Innovation Lab, we hope to significantly reduce the economic loss caused by this pest in Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as in the rest of Asia and the United States,” Muniappan said.

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.

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