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Tomato Terrorism: The Big Fight Against a Tiny Predator

Inside the International Effort to Save the World’s Favorite Fruit

By Batt Humphreys

Blacksburg, Virginia-July 6, 2015 – The list of summer’s simple pleasures is long. There is one perennial favorite. To-ma-to, to-mah-to. Our lives would be less without it. Debate the definition of fruit vs. vegetable and cast off the Supreme Court ruling of 1893. Embrace the food politics of the incorrect by lathering white bread with mayonnaise and dropping a thick cut of Big Boy with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

To my palate homegrown tomatoes are priceless. But let’s put a number on it: Tomatoes in America are a two BILLION dollar business in farm cash receipts. We love tomatoes, we love money. What if both went away?

There is a real and present danger from an insect so insidious, it is invading continents, destroying native tomato crops. It is a danger so real the U.S. government is waging a multistaged war on multiple fronts to keep the insect known as Tuta absoluta from invading America.

“The United States is very worried,” says Muni Muniappan, the director of the Virginia Tech-led Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovation Lab. He’s made the fight against this invasive pest his personal crusade. “T. absoluta is spreading and decimating tomato crops in Africa, India, Senegal, Europe, Asia…” his list of countries and continents under assault continues. In fact of the seven continents, the insect known as the tomato leafminer is moving across four with the speed of a Panzer division through Poland. Of the other three, Antarctica is safe, for obvious reasons, Australia and North America are engaged in both defensive and offensive tactics.

Lest you think this is just bother over a moth, the USDA’s topline on T. absoluta reads like a Cold War preamble to a Defcon 2 alert: Any new detection may require the establishment of an Incident Command System to facilitate emergency management. This document is meant to provide the necessary information to launch a response to a detection of the tomato leafminer.


“We’ve issued a federal order to keep it out of the U.S.,” says Devaiah Muruvanda, the senior risk manager for the USDA. “We’ve initiated a systems approach with more than one measure in place to combat T. absoluta.” He’s taken the aggressive approach one step further – he’s banned scientists from even bringing the pest into the U.S. for research. “I will not allow them in,” Devaiah says emphatically.

Think about that. In government and private laboratories across the country, research and experiments exist on some of the most pathological bacteria and viruses known to man; botulism, anthrax, ebola – but not T. absoluta.

“The threat of Tuta absoluta for North America is very real – and very close, as the pest has been found in Costa Rica in 2014,” says Abbey Powell with the USDA. “There are huge trade issues associated with this pest threat.”

Trade involves imported tomatoes. Some countries are completely banned from exporting to the U.S. Others export only fruit with all stems and leaves removed. That is where the moth can hide. The import trade requires one level of vigilance, inspections of foreign packing, shipping and storage facilities. The same occurs at U.S. ports.

Is it time to pull out Dante and “Abandon all Hope” as we enter tomato season?

Not yet. Muniappan with his USAID-funded research and Muruvanda at the USDA know things about T. absoluta that they can’t confess. But Muruvanda grows his own tomatoes at home. “Do I worry? Not about my garden. I think we have good tactics against the tomato leafminer. But when I’m in Home Depot buying my plants, I look at the tags to see where they came from.”

Semper vigilantis. Enjoy your summer tomatoes.

Batt Humphreys (@batthumphreys) is a freelance writer living in South Carolina and Virginia.

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