As invasive and indigenous insect pests continue to wreak havoc on crops across Africa, a Virginia Tech-led project is intensifying its work to coordinate a response that looks beyond geographic and financial barriers.

Stopping crop losses requires working across borders, said Muni Muniappan, director of the Virginia Tech-led Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management. “Fighting these pests in just a few of these countries is futile, because it will continue to thrive in the countries where we are not working,” he said.

With the United Nations signaling that hunger is a problem for more than a quarter of adults in sub-Saharan Africa, helping farmers in Africa is a crucial goal for the Innovation Lab.

Muniappan – at an emergency meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – joined a group in September laying out a roadmap for controlling fall armyworm. He called for creation of a database to cover all of Africa listing the pest’s natural enemies, with the cooperation of USAID, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and other international agencies.

In places already dealing with drought and political instability, invasive pests like the fall armyworm limit the ability of farmers to grow enough food. The armyworm arrived in Nigeria in early 2016 and later spread to more than 28 African countries,  where it threatens to wreak $3 billion worth of damage to the continent’s corn crop along with 80 other staples including rice, sorghum, and millet.

A second high-profile pest is the South American tomato leafminer, Tuta absoluta. Virginia Tech’s Innovation lab held 16 awareness workshops worldwide that helped mitigate the pest’s damage by enabling scientists, researchers, and farmers from nearly 60 countries to more effectively battle it.

In a related project, the Innovation Lab is performing work under a grant from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet at Kansas State University to establish biological control of pests threatening millet in Niger, including the fall armyworm. Three parasitic wasps are under consideration to be released as natural enemies. Muniappan is working with researchers in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania to potentially propagate the wasps to protect crops in that part of the continent.

In October, an entomology graduate student from Niger with ties to Muniappan and the Innovation Lab won the BIFAD graduate student Award for Scientific Excellence at an event held in conjunction with the World Food Prize ceremonies in Des Moines, Iowa. Laoali Amadou, who spent six months at Virginia Tech in advanced training, earned recognition for his work with a consortium of other West African scientists to develop biological controls for the millet head miner. The pest can create an almost 85 percent reduction of millet yields. Amadou’s work focused on developing procedures to produce beneficial insects that help control the miner, an approach estimated to bring about a $200 million economic benefit annually.

The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is a project of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs. The Innovation Lab, funded by USAID, focuses its work on Feed the Future countries identified by the USAID Bureau of Food Security.

Written by Dana Cruikshank