May 17, 2010 Biological control experts are sending mites after their own kind as IITA and partners make headway in an initiative to naturally manage the most invasive and destructive pest of the crop, the coconut mite Aceria guerreronis Keifer.
The pest causes up to 60 percent loss in coconut production, directly affecting the food and income of millions of farmers already rattled by low prices of their produce and the high costs of farm inputs and labour.
Scientists working on a four-year biocontrol project to search for natural enemies of the deadly pest from its area of origin -- the tropical belt in the Americas -- have identified a predatory mite, Neoseiulus baraki, from Brazil. Experimental releases of the predator mite will start soon even as the project team continues to search for other promising natural enemies of the coconut mite in the region.
"When organisms, like mites, that feed on plants invade areas with environments similar fromo where they came from, they tend to develop large populations and cause extensive damage to their primary host plants because they are free from natural enemies that checked their spread in their place of origin," explains Dr Rachid Hanna, biological control specialist with IITA.
"We are searching for and characterizing the biology and ecology of natural enemies of coconut mite in regions in the Americas that had not been previously explored. We will then conduct experimental releases in Africa and Asia of one or more natural enemies that are likely to be most effective in controlling the pest," he added.
Under the biocontrol project, which started in 2008, IITA scientists are working closely with the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands as well as with agricultural research partners in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. It is being implemented in Benin and Tanzania in Africa, and Sri Lanka in Asia.
In Tanzania, about 8 million people directly depend on the 25 million-plus coconut trees for their livelihoods. The tree is mostly found along the coastal belt as well as on the shores of Lake Nyasa, Tanganyika and Victoria. In Sri Lanka, coconut accounts for 21 percent of the agricultural land use and about 2 percent of the country's GDP. Coconut and coconut products also account for 2.5 percent of Sri Lanka's total export earnings.
Commonly regarded as the "tree of life," coconuts provide about half of the total household incomes of tropical coastal communities where the tree thrives. They are an excellent source of food, as well as oil for cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
Coconut by-products are used to make cakes for animal feed, while coconut shells are used as fuel for cooking, as extenders and fillers in plastics, and for making household items.
In many countries in Africa, the leaves and trunk are used as building materials and to make furniture. In Asia, the husks are used to make ropes, mats, and eco-friendly erosion control nets, among others.
The project is funded by WOTRO, the science division of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, which supports scientific research on development issues.
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