Spread of noxious moth destroys tomato crops across Yemen
‘We may not find tomatoes in the middle of winter,’ warns Ministry of Agriculture
SANA’A, Nov. 6—The price of tomatoes in Yemen has jumped to YR400 ($1.86) per kilogram due to the spread of the noxious moth, tuta absoluta, which is wreaking havoc on farms and destroying crop yields.
A strategy to use pesticides to protect the crop against the moth has largely failed and caused locals to complain about the deteriorating quality of the tomato plants that are making it to consumers’ tables.
“We were concerned about the price hike of food commodities,” said Abdulla Al-Jubani, a local in Sana’a, “but now tomatoes are another concern.”
“Tomatoes are a staple in our meals. Even if we buy tomatoes, it does not taste good because of chemicals farmers are using.”
Officials expect the situation to get worse. They predict costs will continue to rise as usable crops diminish.
According to the Agriculture and Irrigation Ministry, the moth’s destruction of tomato plants has cost Yemen over YR71 billion (approximately $330 million) since its appearance last autumn through the end of August.
The government has promised various financial stipends for farmers to help them offset their losses, although it is unclear if any have been delivered yet. Mohammed Al-Ghashm, the deputy minister of the Agriculture and Irrigation Ministry, said Yemen has obtained several relief packages from foreign countries. He cited a $550,000 grant from the United States Assistance and International Development (USAID) program, $120,000 donation from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and a $238,000 grant from the Community Livelihood Program.
Additionally, a combination of efforts from the Yemeni government, Credit Agriculture Cooperative Bank, and Agriculture and Fishing Fund, are supporting the Agriculture Ministry with a YR250 million grant (approximately $1.16 million).
In the meantime, officials are scrambling for a strategy to rid the country’s farms of the moth. The head of the research and guidance department at the Agriculture and Irrigation Ministry, Engineer Wajeeh Al-Matwakil, said the biggest problem with combating the pest is the immunity it has developed to various pesticides that have been used against it in the past. As a result, the Ministry has abandoned the ineffective strategy, which also provoked a consumer backlash.
Although it has drawn criticism from organic farming advocates, the Ministry now how a plan to distribute hormones to farmers in order to disrupt the moth’s breeding cycle. The hormones are expected to make female eggs unattractive to male moths, leaving them unfertilized.
However, Al-Matwakil says the plan is going to take time to enact.
“We may not find tomatoes in the middle of winter,” he warned, adding that the spread of the moth has been greatest in Yemen’s hot, coastal areas, where the majority of Yemeni tomatoes are grown.
For now farmers say they are scraping by until they received the promised hormones and see if it works.
“I used to sell tomatoes making over YR5 million (about $23,000) in one season, but now I cannot even make YR500 thousand ($2,300),” said Yahia Al-Salami, a farmer in the Qa’a Jahran valley of Dhamar governorate.
The first known appearance of the tuta absoluta moth was in South America in 1970. The moth appeared in Spain in 2006, and the following year, it spread to France, Italy, Greece, Malta, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.