The Virginia Tech scientist who has spent the past four years alerting world policymakers to the pest that destroyed 80 percent of Nigeria's tomato crop is now adding three more venues to his workshop-and-awareness campaign: Malaysia, Cambodia, and Orlando, Florida.
Also, in a new development, scientists at the University of California, Davis, have issued a warning to master gardeners throughout the state that the tomato leafminer "will eventually establish in California, where it is likely to become a serious threat to tomato production."
The U.C. Davis scientists say they are "working on potential quarantine issues" in anticipation of Tuta absoluta's incursion into California, mirroring prevention efforts worldwide spearheaded by Virginia Tech's Muni Muniappan.
Earlier this summer, Muniappan helped confirm the leafminer's presence in Bangladesh and Nepal after scientists and policymakers there became alert to the threat through on-site training programs of the Virginia Tech-led Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab.
Muniappan, who directs the lab, documents the tiny moth's advance as it creates millions of dollars of crop losses in Europe, Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, and North Africa. Last year, he convened a group of plant protection scientists at the International Plant Protection Congress in Berlin in August, after which the United States adopted stricter customs controls on foreign-grown tomatoes at U.S. ports of entry.
Scientists warn that the leafminer, which primarily threatens tomatoes but also devastates other crops, is a risk to food security and agricultural production in countries where it invades. The Virginia Tech-based Innovation Lab, which is funded by USAID, will hold awareness workshops in Cambodia and Malaysia in the next 30 days. The workshops are designed to help scientists recognize the leafminer and put preventive measures in place.
Muniappan is scheduled to host a symposium at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando in September, “Global Spread and Management of the South American Tomato Leafminer, Tuta absoluta.” Also in the United States, he said, the National Plant Diagnostic Network Training and Education is looking at developing new modules for "first detectors" to identify the pest when it enters the U.S.'s southern border.
In a radio interview with BBC news, Muniappan explained new U.S. import procedures in which importers "must remove the stock and the green material on the top of the fruit before they pack it and ship it.”
The awareness program will continue into 2017, when Muniappan will give presentations at a climate change conference in Nepal in January and at the Arab Congress of Plant Protection in Egypt in November.
The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is part of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development under Outreach and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.
Stephanie Parker contributed to this report.