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We can solve Tomato Ebola outbreak in Nigeria– Dr. Animashaun

Dr Mufutau Animashaun is a consultant post-harvest horticulturist and a one-time Lagos State Honourable Commissioner for Agricultural Coop and Rural Development. In this interview with GODWIN ANYEBE, he discussed the causes, effects of tuta-absoluta locally known as tomato Ebola and how it can be controlled Excerpts.

Presently, fruits and vegetable farms in Nigeria are  having a holocaust of tuta-absoluta  locally known as tomato Ebola. As an expert, can you explain what tuta absoluta is, how it attacks vegetables and precaution needed to stop its spread before the solution arrives?.

Tuta-absoluta is an intelligent  insect that has a distinctive survival instinct, it’s a pest that destroys tomato crops and it has been prevalent in this country for 50 years , but just discovered few years back . The attention is just coming up now because of the intensity of the attack that is being experienced. It is a soil born pest,  Tuta absoluta (Meyrick), is a micro lepidopteran moth belonging to the Gelechiidae family and is considered as one of the most devastating pest that feeds on  tomatoes , garden egg,  aubergine,  potatoes, and tobacco plants.  Tuta absoluta pest spreads very quickly, it  has a high reproductive potential and a life cycle that can take between 24 to 76 days, depending on the environmental conditions.

Adults are silvery gray with black spots on the fore-wings . Their activity is concentrated in the early morning and dusk; during the rest of the day they remain hidden among the leaves. Adult lifespan ranges between 10 and 15 days for females and 6–7 days for males. The female lays the eggs mainly on the leaves, although they can also be found on stems and sepals. Eggs are laid isolated, thus facilitating their distribution on the crop. The number of eggs per female is usually between 40 and 50 and may reach 260.

This is just a nominal description of Tuta absoluta and I think we need to deploy different approaches to solving the problem. First is the approach of attacking the insects itself at the reproduction stages from the egg to adult. It’s not about attacking at the point of attack, but killing the egg before hatching, that is completely wiping it off from our farm land nationwide. We need an Entomologist report to identify the specie of the pest, because it’s possible that the specie that can survive in Kano and Kaduna might not survive in Jos and Yola because of the varied temperature. That means we have to develop many strategies and  approaches.

Another approach  is to identify which stage of the lifecycle that attacks and infects the fruits either the larva, pupa or the adult state, because I know that it’s a moth that reproduces twelve times a year and it can be  terminated before it matures to age that attacks the fruit. The third is the pesticide method: though some experts have suggested the use of pesticides, we have to be very careful, some pesticides are systemic, you intend to control the insects but the tomatoes can take it up and when eaten fresh can be carcinogenic and cause harm to the human body.

What does this mean sir?

I am unequivocally saying that I can solve this Ebola tomatoes outbreak locally in synergy with other indigenous plant protection experts. I did my Doctorate degree thesis on post-harvest pathology. I spent every day of my life  for six years  researching on different fruits and vegetables pathology. I don’t need to go to heaven with dollars or pounds to solve these outbreak. We are blessed in this country with world class brains. As a Nigerian, I won the best oral presentation at the 2nd All African Horticulture Congress (AAHC) ‘Horticulture for humanity’, Shukuza, South-Africa in 2012 with participants from all over the world.  I think we should look at the post management of these crops , study the physiology of the crops and know when it is mature. Our culture here is that we eat ripened products but the right practice is to harvest the physiologically matured crop  and subsequently transfer to a cold room with a specific temperature suitable for the crop.

At what stage?

For example the tomato has six stages, it is harvested in the second stage which is the green crop stage then it is put in the cold room at a temperature not more than 13 degree centigrade or else the crop would have chilling damage. Every fruit contains a gas called endogenous ethylene,(ethanol) it can be injected too. It hastens ripeness in tomatoes and gives you a very good fresh tomato. Ethylene is a hydro carbon compound obtained from butane and,or propane.

Doesn’t ethylene have health effects?

No it doesn’t, it’s a gas, it is used for ripening process and it increases the shelf life of fruits.

You said that your grand mission  is to develop a value chain system for horticultural crops, fruits and vegetables in Nigeria, I believe it is important for our local food security, how do you intend to achieve this in this system?

We are having a collaborative arrangement with a sister institution in the UK. We have a post-harvest unit that is very involved in researches and test for most fruits and vegetables for supermarkets in the UK. We carry out the palatability test, aroma, flavour and acceptability by consumers of all these products that come to UK and we send our analyses and results to them. However I am back  to establish a similar thing in Nigeria where we have post harvest unit in some of our institutions especially in Lagos state where we have land constraint, we have areas where we can locate containerized cold rooms and offer post harvest management and packaging of these crops, this will help them to retain their original freshness and increase their shelf lives and that is why we have the value chain from the farm to the table you have it fresh.

How do you think the peasant farmers who are the major producers of tomatoes in Nigeria can afford the cold room facility?

They can form a co-operative society and have a common cold room where companies can buy from there and do all the marketing and other necessary things like post harvest treatment on their own. The farmers would bring their products, at that stage we call them contract farmers. You give specifications, at this stage you plant and harvest and you bring them to the warehouse not far from the farm.

How can the states affected with Tomato-Ebola proactively control its spread to other states?

We have to do the right thing by being very professional and ethical. Let’s do an entomology test on the different species and use the right approach from the result finding to contain it so that there won’t be another outbreak in future.

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