Virginia Tech’s worldwide efforts to cut crop losses will help feed billions, researchers say

earth-newHalting climate change-induced crop losses could relieve pressure on farmers who are trying to satisfy burgeoning populations, Virginia Tech researchers say. With world population projected to hit nine billion in 2050, two factors in addition to climate change require dramatic responses – invasive species and loss of biodiversity caused by pesticide misuse.

Adopting integrated pest management practices could reduce food-crop losses by 50 percent, writes Muni Muniappan, who directs the USAID-funded Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech. He and co-author Elvis A. Heinrichs, the Innovation Lab’s Asia program manager, share their recommendations in a piece in the August edition of the journal Outlooks on Pest Management.

With more hungry mouths to feed, the world will require a 60 to 70 percent increase in food production, the authors say. But not enough land is being set aside across the globe for this purpose, and such great gains cannot be achieved merely through better handling of harvests or increasing yields per acre. The solution is to adopt integrated pest management practices, which would ensure that the projected 60 to 70 percent jump in needed food production would shrink to 30 percent, the authors say.

For more than 20 years, the Virginia Tech-led international research effort has designed and spread environmentally friendly practices to fend off emerging pests and disease problems that plague farmers in developing countries. The work is managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs. The lab recently received an $18 million extension of a USAID-funded grant to continue its work.

The Innovation Lab recently held a three-day course in India to promote the use of Trichoderma, called a “fighting fungus” because of its strengths as a biological control tool for farmers worldwide. For instance, Trichoderma kills fusarium wilt on tomatoes, clubroot on broccoli, and pink root in onion. Last year the Innovation Lab led an international workshop to train researchers, scientists, and agriculture experts in the use of the inexpensive, environmentally friendly bio-agent.

Earlier this year, Muniappan and colleagues began to put measures in place in Nepal in advance of a tiny moth, Tuta absoluta, that has caused millions of dollars of crop losses in Europe, Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, and North Africa. Their preventive education work was the first time Virginia Tech scientists – who’ve battled the pest for years – were able to take action before the moth invades.

For a decade, scientists confronted the South American tomato leafminer only after the fact, watching it ravage crops in one country after the next after it jumped from its native South America to Spain in 2006. Now, when the pest enters Nepal – as it inevitably will –  farmers will be better able to confront a pest that can destroy 80 to 100 percent of a tomato farmer’s yield, Muniappan says. Tomatoes aren’t the only targets. The moth can also lay waste to eggplant, potato, pepper, and other food crops.

Last year, in the journal Crop Protection, Muniappan and a team of coauthors demonstrated that the Innovation Lab’s work to halt crop destruction in India saved the government, consumers, and farmers in India up to $309 million the first year and more than $1 billion over five years.

The IPM concept emerged from the 1960s when it became clear that toxic pesticides not only were becoming less effective because of organisms’ ability to develop resistance, but also toxic chemicals created harmful impacts on many unintended targets, Muniappan and Heinrichs write.