Megan O’Rourke is on a $2 million grant to combat agricultural pests in Asia

From VT News

A $2 million grant recently awarded to the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will empower farmers in Asia to grow food in a way that addresses challenges of climate change and uses sustainable farming methods to feed a global population that is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050.

“Investing in agriculture is essential for developing economies to move forward because it allows local populations to increase their incomes through improved agricultural productivity,” said George Norton, professor of agricultural and applied economics and principal investigator on the project. “Typically, an improved agriculture industry will enable other sectors to grow along with it.  And other sectors such as transportation play an important role in agricultural development by allowing farmers to bring their increased production to market.”

The grant will allow the research and collaborative outreach — called an innovation lab — to focus on production of tomato, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, cucurbits, onion, and mango.  The focus countries in the region — Cambodia, Nepal, and Bangladesh — are designated as Feed the Future countries by the United States Agency for International Development. Feed the Future countries are determined based on need, opportunity for partnership, potential for agricultural growth, opportunity for regional synergy, and resource availability.

The grant is part of the innovation lab collaborative network funded by USAID and managed by universities across the country. The particular innovation lab managed by Virginia Tech is the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab. It focuses on developing sustainable pest management systems for each crop in each host country. The venture develops, adapts, and diffuses IPM technologies through close interaction among international scientists in public and private institutions and in conjunction with the U.S. government’s Feed the Future goals.

Integrated Pest Management is a system of sustainable agricultural techniques that manages pests in a way that has minimal impact on the environment, using everything from beneficial insects that attack harmful pests, to trapping crops that attract pests away from food crops, to tunnel systems that protect crops from animals and other insects.


Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems Megan O’Rourke, at right, and Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics George Norton, at center, talk with a producer in Cambodia.

Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems Megan O’Rourke is another faculty member involved on the project and has extensive experience working with producers in Cambodia.

“Producers in developing countries face many challenges that growers in the United States can’t even imagine, such as not having inputs available to buy or labels not written in their own language.  That being said, there is also an opportunity through these types of collaborations to work together to develop more sustainable, and environmentally-friendly production systems right from the start,”  said O’Rourke.

Investing in agriculture overseas is beneficial to U.S. farmers, as well as to those in developing countries.

“When we invest in agricultural markets overseas we are potentially opening up markets for U.S. products,” said Norton, recipient of the International Integrated Pest Management Award for Excellence. “Developing countries are growth markets for our agricultural and other products. The more their populations earn, the more they are empowered to buy goods from the United States, bolstering our economy as well.”

The IPM Innovation Lab has already led the way in combatting a pest that has caused severe damage to tomato crops — Tuta absoluta, commonly known as the tomato leafminer.

Now threatening Asia, the moth strikes tomato growers around the world, leaving a destructive path in its wake.

Muni Muniappan, director of the IPM Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech, has worked to quell the effects of the pest.  Muniappan noticed Tuta’s arrival in Africa in 2012 and subsequently led several workshops in Senegal, Ethiopia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Tanzania to raise awareness of the pest and give tips on controlling its prolific destruction.

The monies received by the Virginia Tech-led Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab are part of a larger $18 million award that is also managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of the Office of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Amy Loeffler.