Knowledge for a sustainable world

Linden Kemkaran, Maruthi Gowda

Every year, viral diseases wreak havoc on tomato and cucurbit (squash, pumpkin, courgette) crops worldwide, causing losses of around Euros 3.5bn in Europe alone. The EU-funded VIRTIGATION project has been launched to combat emerging viral diseases in crops, and to help prevent them from spreading around the world.

Pandemics are not only affecting humans. New and aggressive plant viruses are spreading in greenhouses and fields across the world, threatening the production of tomato and cucurbit crops, and wiping billions of Euros off their value. From Europe to Morocco, Israel to India, huge yield losses are occurring, ranging from 15% to 100% crop destruction. The emergence of new and devastating plant viruses is fueled by a combination of climate change, rising global trade and more interconnected agricultural sectors.

To date, few viable remedies have been made available to tackle the destruction of crops caused by these plant viruses, and unless effective and environmentally friendly solutions are found to protect tomatoes and cucurbits against damage from viral diseases, the supply of important and nutritious foods for billions of people will be in jeopardy.

Virtigation pumpkins 750NRI’s Professor Maruthi Gowda says: “NRI’s contribution to VIRTIGATION makes excellent use of our research and development experience on sustainable control of viral diseases and their insect vectors, especially whiteflies. We use cutting-edge research to understand how viruses jump hosts from tomatoes to cucurbits to expand their host range. To counter their ability to spread quickly, we will identify virus-resistant varieties from wide germplasm collections to provide rapid and natural control measures for farmers. In addition to the use of naturally occurring resistance sources, we are exploring wide-ranging IPM practices such as the use of biopesticides, plant extractions and novel eco-friendly formulations for controlling the whiteflies. These efforts will minimise the use of harmful synthetic pesticides and thus help us produce healthier vegetables."

In response to this global threat, the EU-funded VIRTIGATION project aims to cut tomato and cucurbit crop losses stemming from viral diseases by up to 80%, and it seeks to cut in half, or even eliminate the use of pesticides to control emerging viral diseases. VIRTIGATION will demonstrate several innovative bio-based solutions to safeguard tomato and cucurbit plants.

These will include natural plant resistance, plant vaccines, a sustainable and integrated pest management (IPM) approach, and biopesticides – short for 'biological pesticides' – substances used for controlling pests made from natural products or micro-organisms, as opposed to the more conventional synthetic or chemical pesticides. The VIRTIGATION project will also implement new methods for the early detection and prevention and control of these plant viruses. It will further develop innovative diagnostic tools and online monitoring platforms to identify possible outbreaks to ‘test, track and trace’ the spread of viruses. With this toolbox, VIRTIGATION aims to assist the entire value chain — from plant health services and policymakers, to industry and farmers — in protecting tomatoes and cucurbits from viral diseases.

Professor Gowda continues: “The unique feature of this project is the use of a multi-actor approach in which feedback from various stakeholders in the vegetable value chain including farmers, industry and growers’ associations, will help decide the direction of research based on on-farm needs. This will help us solve problems based on real needs, and will enable faster uptake of our technologies by the growers. We are very excited to be involved in VIRTIGATION to work with some of the best minds in Europe to tackle the emerging viral diseases of tomato and cucurbit crops”.

As global threats require global solutions, VIRTIGATION brings together some of the most renowned universities, industries, research & technology organisations, agricultural extension services and SMEs across the world. The project involves 25 partners from 12 countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Morocco the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

VIRTIGATION is coordinated by the Department of Biosystems at KU Leuven University in Belgium. Project Coordinator, Hervé Vanderschuren, Professor of Tropical Crop Improvement at KUVirtigation logo 750 Leuven, outlines the aims: “Over the last year, the society has become aware of the importance of developing our capacities to cope with pandemics. Viral diseases not only impact human health, they can also undermine the sustainability of our food production systems when they cause important losses to crops. Therefore, there is a pressing need to increase our knowledge and capacities to implement novel and sustainable solutions, such as the deployment of crop varieties resistant to viral diseases, biological control of the insect vectors transmitting viral diseases, as well as the development of vaccines to prevent viral diseases to rapidly propagate in susceptible crop varieties. The VIRTIGATION consortium will use a multidisciplinary approach to develop the aforementioned solutions, in order to reduce the impact of emerging viral diseases on tomato and cucurbits.”

The VIRTIGATION project is running for a duration of 4 years (June 2021 – May 2025) and is funded with EUR 7 million by the EU Horizon 2020 programme.

To find out more about:

Natural Resources Institute

Professor Maruthi Gowda


Hervé Vanderschuren

KU Leuven University