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VT scientist works to combat spread of invasive moth threatening tomato crops

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

BLACKSBURG (WSLS 10) - The rapid spread of a highly destructive invasive species has prompted a Virginia Tech scientist to lead the charge in issuing a set of recommendations, including quarantine measures, designed to thwart the advance of the pest around the globe.

The insect – established in Panama and Costa Rica – is moving northward but has not yet arrived in the United States.

Its potential arrival is a big concern among U.S. government agricultural officials.

"Our domestic tomato industry could be severely affected," Devaiah Muruvanda, senior risk manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said, in a written release. "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."

The pest in question is the South American tomato leafminer, Tuta absoluta. No larger than an eyelash, the tiny moth spread from its native Latin America to Europe in 2006 and later crossed the Mediterranean to Africa.

Now threatening Asia, the moth strikes at the world's most commercially important horticulture crop – the tomato, valuable to small-holder farmers around the world. Its path is destructive and its advance rapid.

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 using 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.

World production of tomato is approximately 163 million tons annually, and production of the crop covers 10 million acres worldwide. Further details here.