An aggressive and silent killer is on the move and expected to reach U.S. shores if something doesn't slow or stop its northward march from Central America.
As the crow flies, the distance from Costa Rica and Panama, two locations where this killer lurks and appears to be spreading rapidly north in recent months, is not that great, and USDA risk managers are warning it could be a game changer for the U.S. tomato industry.
The South American tomato leafminer, Tuta absoluta, is no larger than an eyelash. But this miniature moth can destroy 80 to 100 percent of commercial crops it invades.
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"Our domestic tomato industry could be severely affected," Devaiah Muruvanda, senior risk manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says. "The United States is taking it so seriously, we haven't even given permits to do research, in order to prevent any possibility of the insect's escape."
But thanks to the efforts of the Virginia Tech Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, a coalition of global scientists and policymakers gathered for the 18th International Plant Protection Congress in Berlin in August to develop a strategy that could help manage the leafminer worldwide.
Led by efforts of Virginia Tech agriculture officials, members of the congress have issued a set of recommendations, including quarantine measures designed to thwart the advance of the pest around the globe.
The tiny moth spread from its native Latin America to Europe in 2006 and later crossed the Mediterranean to Africa. According to Virginia Tech agriculture officials, the moth, now threatening Asia, strikes at the world's most commercially important horticulture crop—the tomato. The pest’s path is destructive and its advance rapid, moving from Europe, the Middle East, and most recently to India.
USDA has confirmed the tiny moth is moving northward and will arrive in the U.S. in the not-too-distant future.
USDA reports world production of tomato is approximately 163 million tons annually, from about 10 million acres worldwide.
"When the tomato leafminer strikes, it can cause between 80percent to 100 percent crop loss unless proper management technologies are adopted," says Muni Muniappan, entomologist and director of the Virginia Tech-led Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab. "The moth can't be completely eradicated. The best you can do is control it."
In 2011, the insect infested 404,000 acres of cultivated tomato, representing 40 percent of the world's crop. In the United States, the tomato industry accounts for more than $2 billion in annual farm cash receipts, according to the USDA.
The economic impact of the moth has already been severe in countries where it has become established. In Spain it led to an increase of $209 per acre per season related to pest management. In central Argentina, management of the pest accounts for 70 percent of the pest management costs for late-season tomato crops.
As director of an agricultural development program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Muniappan noticed the insect's arrival in Senegal in 2012, where the program conducted research.
Since then, the program has held half a dozen workshops to raise awareness about the invasive species and help public officials and farmers prepare to minimize the destruction.
The team's recommendations include:
- Educate administrators, scientists, and the public about the impending danger of the coming Tuta absoluta invasion.
- Adopt quarantine measures to prevent its introduction. These would include such steps as not allowing the import of tomatoes with stems, leaves, or a calyx (the green sepals of a flower that form an outer floral envelope).
- Set up monitoring programs in border areas using pheromone traps.
- Explore the effectiveness of natural enemies of Tuta absoluta, imported from South America, home of the moth, to control the pest.
- Form regional and global networks to inform each other and the world about Tuta absoluta discoveries.
Citation for research: Virginia Tech News/Virginia Tech Integrated Pest Management Innovation