In autumn 2017, the U.S. Agency for International Development Mission in Egypt presented a team of Virginia Tech researchers with an urgent challenge — determine if the fall armyworm, a pest native to the tropics of North and South America that is currently devastating crops across sub-Saharan Africa, could spread into Egypt and beyond.

The U.S. and Egyptian governments’ concern about the fall armyworm is based on its devastating track record on the rest of the African continent since its 2016 arrival in Nigeria. The Virginia Tech-led Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management has monitored the pest’s rapid movement into more than 28 African countries since its emergence and is working to find potential solutions to stop it.

The worms cause defoliation, leaving behind stalks. The pest threatens to wreak an estimated $3 billion worth of damage to the continent’s corn crop along with 80 others, including rice, sorghum, wheat, and millet, making it vital for policymakers and farmers to know if the pest could spread into southwest Asia and Europe through Egypt.

When the request came to predict the pest’s potential path in Egypt, entomologist and Innovation Lab Director Muni Muniappan contacted Virginia Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute, where researchers helped create an accurate predictive model. Muniappan had worked with Abhijin Adiga, a research faculty member at the institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory, to create models of how Tuta absoluta, also a devastating pest, could spread over road and trade networks in Nepal.

To study Egypt, the IPM Innovation Lab developed a comprehensive risk analysis of that country’s vulnerability to fall armyworm. Using sophisticated models of weather and human movement patterns, the analysis predicts the worm's entry later this year, accomplished either by its independent migration or as it hitches rides along trade routes.

Once in Egypt, the modeling shows, the pest will likely spread along the Nile River Valley, home to many plant varieties the worm seeks. Once established in the Nile Delta region, it will travel naturally to western Asia within three to four months, according to the models.

The analysis also evaluates potential crop losses and ways to reduce the adverse effects of toxic pesticides. As farmers learn to use integrated pest management tools to contain the pest, they may release local natural parasites and predators to attack the worm. The Innovation Lab has identified several species in Africa that could be effective.

According to Muniappan, this work shows the transdisciplinary approach Virginia Tech can bring to bear on complex and time-sensitive problems.

“We at the Innovation Lab have expertise in entomology, plant pathology, agricultural economics, plant health, and other aspects of integrated pest management,” he explained. “The Biocomplexity Institute can perform sophisticated modeling that is really cutting-edge. Having them together on one campus makes us a unique team.”

Agricultural officials and farmer groups in Egypt are already using the report’s analysis to formulate plans to contain the pest.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management  is managed by the Center for International Research, Education, and Development at Virginia Tech, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Dana Cruikshank

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