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Virginia Tech expert tapped for United Nations work in Saudi Arabia

December 19, 2016

Three men in a greenhouse
Muni Muniappan, center, stands in a tomato greenhouse in Kharkiv, Saudi Arabia, with the greenhouse manager, right, and a translator.

When the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization asked Virginia Tech entomologist Muni Muniappan for a list of experts to help them set up a biocontrol facility in Saudi Arabia, Muniappan offered names, thinking that would be the end of it. He was pleased to hear from the international agricultural organization that, after careful consideration, Muniappan was the expert they sought.

The goal: to create a facility to grow and breed biological control agents – insects, fungi, and bacteria – to combat crop-killing pests.

Muniappan, who leads the USAID-funded Feed the Future Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech, recently advised officials in Saudi Arabia on the next steps, which start with a survey of crops pests and their natural enemies.

"This will allow for the prioritization of pests to tackle, as well as the identification of which natural enemies are already present in Saudi Arabia," Muniappan said. "It's vital to know the situation on the ground before considering introducing exotic natural enemies."

The facility's creation is part of the country’s push toward sustainable agricultural development by reducing chemical pesticides that cause environmental damage and health problems. The focus on using local, natural enemies to fight pests prompted plans for a biocontrol facility that would be a joint venture by the Food and Agriculture Organization along with the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture.

Muniappan met with officials from the plant protection department of the ministry at the capital city of Riyadh and visited regional stations at Al-Qassim and Al-Kharj.

The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab's experience with similar facilities in other countries includes work in Ambo, Ethiopia. As part of the Innovation Lab’s project that develops controls for the invasive weed Parthenium in East Africa, the team helped their partners set up a quarantine facility for biocontrol agents.

This is the first time either the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab or the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, both of which are a part of Outreach and International Affairs, has worked with Saudi Arabia.

Written by Stephanie Parker

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