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FAO steps up response to serious tomato pest in Near East

Plans call for swift, eco-friendly approach to the tomato borer

Photo: ©FAO/Ami Vitale
Tomato is the most economically important crop in the Near East region.
19 July , Rome - FAO is stepping up its response to a tomato-eating moth that is threatening crops in the Near East. Along with partners in affected countries, FAO is emphasizing "soft" pest control programs against the tomato borer that have already succeeded in minimizing damage in the Mediterranean, including North African countries.

Planning is currently underway for a sub-regional project to manage the tomato borer, or Tuta absoluta, in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, drawing on techniques used most recently in various Mediterranean countries.

The idea is to keep damage to a minimum with environmentally and economically sustainable methods that reduce the heavy use of pesticides, and favour the use of natural enemies and "attract-and-kill" pheromone traps.

Tuta absoluta
also feeds on various plants in the nightshade (solanaceae) family like potato, eggplant, pepper, common beans, and some related weeds, but the tomato is the most economically important crop in the region.

The small, brownish moth was first introduced from South America into Spain in 2006 and later spread to countries in the Mediterranean Basin and the Near East - encompassing territories as far north as Switzerland, as far south as Morocco and Algeria, as far east as Turkey, and also Arab Gulf states to the southeast.

"The tomato borer has bred quickly and moved easily across borders. Some countries have been able to minimize the insect's ability to reproduce, and limit its potential to spread and damage crops. FAO's objective is to replicate this success as the pest makes its way east and southeast," said FAO pest management expert Khaled Alrouechdi.

"There are two reasons why we aim to reduce the level of pesticides used: First, the heavy application of chemicals is not environmentally sustainable. Second, the tomato borer has been known to rapidly develop resistance to insecticides," Alrouechdi said.

"Softer" pest control

FAO has been using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) schemes in affected countries to develop low-toxic, affordable approaches to pest control, including:
  • reduced use of chemical pesticides and select natural ones
  • pheromone traps that lure the insects by mimicking potential mates
  • the release of natural enemies (predators and parasitoids of the tomato borer)
  • the use of insect-proof screens and double doors in greenhouses
  • nursery management and insect-free planting materials
  • removal of infested crops and wild host plants
  • rotating crops with non-solanaceous varieties that do not appeal to the insect.

"Pheromones have long been used in various countries for monitoring and mass trapping. It's considered economical, it's easy to use, and it has been well accepted by farmers," Alrouechdi said.

"The use of pheromone traps, collectively by farmers, to eliminate insects using what we call the attract-and-kill method is one of our most promising options," he added.

FAO promotes IPM as the preferred approach to crop protection and pesticide risk reduction, as it offers farmers and policy makers viable alternatives to manage pests and agricultural ecosystems for a more sustainable future.

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