New research demonstrating that Colombia’s most widely grown passion fruit species are entirely free of quarantine insect pests could open the way for thousands of Colombia’s smallholder farmers to increase fruit exports under the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement approved in 2011 by the US Congress.
Currently, Colombian passion fruits are subject to rigorous quarantines applied by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture to prevent the introduction of foreign pests. Fruit flies classified by scientists as members of the family Tephritidae – including the dreaded Mediterranean fruit fly – are among the world’s most damaging insect pests, causing billions of dollars in losses on a wide variety of agricultural products. “US trade quarantines pose a significant barrier to Colombian exports of fresh passion fruit,” said Kris Wyckhuys, an entomologist at CIAT and lead author of the new study. “The ban is based on the mere suspicion that Med fly affects these species in Colombia, stemming from reports of infestation in other South American countries.” In a meticulous field study of fruit flies on passion fruits – published in the journal Crop Protection – Wyckhuys and his co-authors detected no harmful species on more than 15,000 samples of passion fruit gathered from 231 farms over a 2-year period from all of Colombia’s main production areas.
This work formed part of a project addressing passion fruit constraints, which was financed by the Colombian government and conducted by Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in collaboration with the Colombian Corporation of Agricultural Research (CORPOICA) and Colombian Institute of Agriculture (ICA). The new results on fruit flies help inform an evaluation being carried out by ICA with APHIS of any risks that may be involved with trade in Colombian passion fruits.
Better knowledge about fruit pests is also critical for reducing indiscriminate, calendar-based use of agrochemicals to control pests and diseases, according to Alonso González, who leads CIAT’s research on tropical fruits.
In addition to raising farmers’ production costs, he explained, excessive applications eliminate beneficial insect species, including pollinating insects, thus reducing fruit production. The practice further gives rise to high levels of pesticide residues in harvested fruit, which are dangerous to producers and consumers while also representing a self-imposed barrier to exports.
Colombia’s exports of fresh passion fruit have increased in value from about US$1.3 million in 2000 to just over $4.4 million currently. The country ships fresh produce primarily to the European Union, while exporting only processed passion fruit, mainly as juice, to the USA. The steady rise in international demand for purple, sweet, and yellow passion fruits has made them a key focus of Colombia’s agricultural development in recent years. These crops show particular promise for creating rural employment and raising rural incomes.
Yet, in recent years, Colombia’s fruit sector has shown signs of losing its competitive edge. This has resulted from farmers’ limited access to irrigation and slow uptake of improved technologies, including knowledgebased strategies for managing pests. Widespread adoption of such strategies could go a long way toward making the country’s passion fruit production more eco-efficient and more successful in international markets.