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Virginia Tech program leads international workshops on destructive tomato pest

January 1, 2017

Map of the world
In 2006, Tuta absoluta traveled to Europe and has since invaded almost every continent. In the western hemisphere, it is currently as far north as Costa Rica and expected to spread to the United States.

When scientists in Bangladesh first noticed the presence of tiny moths on their tomato plants last spring, they were worried but not surprised. Virginia Tech experts had braced them for the invasion.

“Because we conducted the Tuta absoluta awareness workshops a year ago, the administration, scientists, NGOs, and others are now fully aware of the pest,” said Muni Muniappan, director of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab that led the conferences.

Tuta absoluta, native to South America, is extremely damaging to tomato plants worldwide. No silver bullet exists to stop the invasive pest, so early detection is key to preventing devastation. Skilled preparation can mean the difference between a manageable problem or an 80 percent crop loss, as Nigeria experienced last spring.

To spread awareness, Virginia Tech’s Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab led two more workshops on the pest in early December in Bangladesh, drawing more than 200 participants. This brings the total of the Innovation Lab's international workshops to 16 since 2013.

Muniappan and his team have led workshops in several countries, including Ethiopia, Germany, and Tanzania, along with the two early-warning sessions in Bangladesh in 2015.

The workshops enabled scientists in Bangladesh to look out for the moth throughout the country. "They  identified it immediately,” Muniappan says. “Otherwise it might have been a couple of years before they noticed its presence.”

In 2006, Tuta absoluta crossed the Atlantic to Spain, spreading over the past decade through most of Europe into the Mediterranean and into much of Central and South Asia and Africa. Most recently, Muniappan confirmed its presence in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Muniappan, an entomologist, is one of the scientific community's first responders, documenting the pace of the pest's devastating spread and setting up a worldwide education program in response.

Early detection helps countries fight the pest using integrated-pest-management methods along with conventional pesticides. Scientists who attend receive pheromone lures, which enable trapping and identification.

The workshops — which began in Senegal, a country that is now in the heart of West Africa’s tomato leafminer problem — have drawn attendees from 55 countries including Canada, Greece, Iran, India, and Peru.

The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab will hold its next workshop on Jan. 10 at the International Conference on Biodiversity, Climate Change Assessment, and Impacts of Livelihood in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is a project of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Stephanie Parker

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