Feed the Future
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Innovation Lab Launches Preemptive Strike Against Destructive Insect in Nepal

This post was submitted by Kelly Izlar, communications coordinator for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management at Virginia Tech.

For the past eight years, scientists have been chasing a tiny invasive moth as it has ravaged its way through many European, North African, and Mediterranean countries. But a Feed the Future Innovation Lab has finally caught up with it. When the moth enters Nepal, farmers will be armed to confront it.

The South American tomato leaf miner is no larger than a comma.Tuta absoluta, a.k.a. the South American tomato leafminer, is an insect no larger than a comma that can decimate 80 to 100 percent of a tomato farmer’s yield. A native of South America, the moth was accidently introduced to Spain in 2006—and it spread quickly. By November of last year, researchers found it infesting tomato crops in India. It’s only a matter of time before the storm of tiny jaws hits Nepal, so scientists and agricultural experts are battening down the hatches. Unfortunately, there is no stopping the pest.

“We don’t have a silver bullet," said Virginia Tech scientist Muni Muniappan who directs the Innovation Lab. “But there are ways to slow it down, and we need to show people how.”

To this end, a workshop was planned and executed in double-time by the Feed the Future Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech, funded by USAID. It was co-hosted by International Development Enterprises (iDE), an NGO in Nepal.

“The extent of damage resulting from a Tuta infestation is unimaginable,” said Sulav Paudel, the Nepal program coordinator. “We saw this workshop as a chance to prevent our farmers from suffering.”

The workshop, held March 13, 2015, gathered scientists, government officials and experts from different agricultural organizations. The 40-plus participants devised a game-plan centered on monitoring markets and fields for the presence of larvae, establishing plant quarantines and raising public awareness.

Tuta absoluta has been an unwelcome presence in many countries for close to a decade, and researchers from the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab and other organizations have successfully controlled the pest with a combination of sustainable techniques, including pheromone traps, biological and plant-based insecticides, and the pest’s own natural enemies.

Tuta absoluta has spread widely in just nine years.

But the first and greatest hurdle is a general lack of information. Farmers don’t necessarily know what’s whittling away at their crops or how to defend themselves against it. "Information is the ammunition they need to fight it," said Muniappan.

And that's where events like the recent workshop come into play. The workshop was the third such event hosted by the IPM IL geared toward increasing public awareness and helping growers first identify Tuta absoluta and then combat it. The first two were held in Ethiopia and Senegal in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The tomato leafminer's next projected invasion is Bangladesh, and government officials there have been proactive – attending past Tuta workshops and requesting one of their own.

“We hope the actions taken to control Tuta absoluta in Nepal and Bangladesh will relieve some of the pressure on farmers,” Muniappan said. “And we hope it will encourage other countries in the region to do the same."

When the South American tomato leafminer hits Nepal, the IPM Innovation Lab will be closely monitoring the situation and issuing updates.