From Italy to Tanzania to Mexico, no matter if they are garnish in a salad or the base of a sauce, tomatoes are a food staple the world over.

Unfortunately an invasive tomato pest known as the South American tomato leafminer, has become just as prolific as the tomato crops themselves.

The pest, whose scientific name is Tuta absoluta, is a particularly terrible threat. It globetrotted from its native Latin America to Europe in 2006 and later crossed the Mediterranean to Africa.

Now threatening Asia, the moth strikes small-holder farmers around the world, leaving a destructive path in its wake.

But Virginia Tech researcher Muni Muniappan is working to quell the effects of the pest. Muniappan noticed Tuta’s arrival in Africa in 2012 and subsequently led several workshops in Senegal, Ethiopia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Tanzania to raise awareness of the pest and give tips on controlling its prolific destruction.

“When the tomato leafminer strikes, it can cause between 80 and 100 percent crop loss unless proper management technologies are adopted,” said  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.”

Muniappan recently convened a group of plant protection specialists in 2015 to develop strategies to control the moth at the 18th International Plant Protection Congress in Berlin, Germany.

Some control measures include quarantining the plant and not importing tomatoes with stems, leaves, or a calyx, the green sepals of a flower that form the outer floral envelope, and using pheromone traps in border areas, and also developing a roster of Tuta’s natural enemies that could be used as biocontrol.

World production of tomato is approximately 163 million tons annually, and production of the crop covers 10 million acres worldwide, Muniappan says. 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 this insect has already been severe in countries where it has become established. In Spain, its presence led to an increase of $209 per acre per season related to pest management. In central Argentina, management of Tuta accounts for 70 percent of the pest management costs for late-season tomato crops.

Image: llustration by Steven White,