IPM IL launches preemptive strike against destructive insect in Nepal

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 Virginia Tech-led program has finally caught up with it. When the moth enters Nepal, farmers will be armed to confront it.

Tuta absoluta, a.k.a. the South American tomato leafminer, is an insect no larger than the comma on this page, which can decimate 80-100 percent of a tomato farmer’s yield. A native of South America, the moth was accidently introduced to Spain in 2006. In November of last year, researchers found it infesting tomato crops in India. Now 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.

“The tomato leafminer will be in Nepal in weeks to months if it’s not already there. There is no silver bullet,” said Virginia Tech scientist Muni Muniappan. “We cannot stop it, but we can slow it down.”

To this end, a workshop was planned and executed in double-time by the Feed the Future Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and led by Virginia Tech. It was co-hosted by the 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 centering on monitoring markets and fields for the presence of larvae, establishing plant quarantines, and raising public awareness.

Tuta absoluta, a.k.a. the South American tomato leafminer, with an American dime for scale.
Tuta absoluta, a.k.a. the South American tomato leafminer, with an American dime for scale.

But how do you fight a tiny, hungry moth? Even though Nepalese agricultural officials are on high alert, Tuta absoluta cannot be stopped. However there are a number of sustainable measures that have been used to control Tuta in other countries, which include pheromone traps, biological and plant-based insecticides, and using the pest’s own natural enemies against it.

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.

Hosting events like this recent workshop will increase public awareness and help growers first identify Tuta absoluta and then combat it.

“If this information reaches farmers before the pest does, they will have the ammunition they need to fight it,” said Muniappan, who directs the innovation lab.

Nepal’s neighbor, Bangladesh, has been eyeing the invasion with similar unease, and they just requested the innovation lab’s help in conducting a workshop 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.”

IPM IL launches preemptive strike against destructive insect in Nepal