Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Tuta absoluta, meet IPM Innovation Lab

It is all about the tomatoes for many farmers in West Africa. Tomatoes are a major cash crop, one of the most lucrative. But invasive pests and diseases have the potential to cripple the industry, especially in a region that began exporting tomatoes to the United States last summer.

Since 1993, researchers with the USAID-funded and Virginia Tech-managed Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab (IPM IL, formerly the IPM CRSP) have been working with growers, extension agents, and specialists in the region to identify tomato pests and diseases and create new ways to manage them.

Now, there is a new target on the horizon for the IPM IL: Tuta absoluta. It might sound like a Mozart aria, but Tuta is a devastating, invasive tomato leafminer native to South America. It was first identified outside of South America in Spain in 2006, quickly spreading to the Netherlands, Iran, and North Africa. The insect “mines” the plant’s leaves, resulting in early leaf drying. Not content with that level of damage, Tuta also bores into stalks and fruit.

“The insect affects the ability of thousands, and possibly millions, of small farmers to grow healthy tomato crops,” says Rangaswamy Muniappan, the IPM IL’s director. Tuta causes damage primarily to tomato but could also affect other crops, making it a risk to food security and agricultural production in countries where it is found. Entire tomato crops are at risk if no control measures are taken.

The program was the first to identify the leafminer’s presence in Senegal in September 2012. A website devoted to documenting the leafminer’s spread reports that the insect has since been identified in Sudan and Niger, and Muniappan believes that it could already have spread to additional African countries. “The problem,” he says, “is monitoring.”

In order to increase awareness of the leafminer’s danger and its potential economic impact in West Africa and beyond, the IPM IL, in collaboration with CORAF, USAID, and USDA/APHIS/SPS, has coordinated a regional workshop in Dakar, Senegal, May 7–9, 2013. Food security experts, agricultural leaders, and scientists will be meeting to discuss strategies for managing the pest. They also hope to establish a coordinated regional Tuta monitoring and forecasting program.

The techniques that the IPM IL and its collaborators develop to manage Tuta will be added to an IPM package for tomato. A package is a holistic approach to pest and disease management that is both environmentally- and economically-friendly.

The concept of an IPM package is rooted in flexibility and adaptation. As new crop diseases or pests appear in an area, local IPM IL specialists can add a new recommendation to the package. And because IPM IL researchers work in many areas of the world, their experiences and knowledge are invaluable in solving these agricultural problems, often brought on by pest and disease movements across regions or continents.

One program success, a host-free period* hindered the spread of a tomato virus in Mali and resulted in yields that were substantially higher than before the virus outbreaks. In fact, an economic impact study performed by IPM IL economists estimated that the host-free period’s benefits in Mali have been $21–24 million.

The techniques that the program develops to manage Tuta could have even greater impacts. “The IPM IL’s collaboration with regional partners is critical to ensuring the effort’s success,” says Muniappan. “It will only help us in reaching more farmers, more extension agents, and more experts to help counter the danger Tuta poses to livelihoods in the region.”

*A host-free period is a means of breaking continuous cropping patterns of a virus-susceptible crop over a defined geographical region for a defined period of time.

This post is the third in a monthly series that explores the impact of Feed the Future Innovation Labs for Collaborative Research (formerly the CRSPs) on food systems. The previous story in this series was the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab’s post on how its gender research is helping to combat food insecurity by uncovering gender-based constraints to adopting conservation agriculture. A scientific note, “First record of Tuta absoluta (Lepidoptera: Gelechiidae) in Senegal,” by IPM IL researchers will be published in June 2013 in Florida Entomologist.