How a wasp the size of a pinhead may have moved global markets

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An infestation of cassava mealybugs on a laboratory specimen of cassava, an important crop also known as manioc. Credit: Tatan Syuflana/AP/REX/Shutterstock A minuscule wasp that attacks a destructive crop pest seems to have helped stabilize global food markets and dampen price volatility. In 2008, the invasive cassava mealybug ( Phenacoccus manihoti ) began to infest Thailand’s fields of cassava, a starchy tuber. As a result, cassava production in Thailand — one of the world’s biggest starch exporters — fell sharply, according to research by Kris Wyckhuys at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues. The researchers found that as the mealybug outbreak continued, the global price of cassava starch rose considerably, and other types of starch also became more expensive. In 2009, the Thai government began importing a wasp, Anagyrus lopezi , that is native to the American tropics and kills the mealybug’s offspring — but no other insects. The team’s data show that soon after, Thailand’s cassava yields and exports rose, and global cassava prices fell. The authors say that although it is difficult to prove that the wasp stabilized the starch market, the wasp’s story shows that biological controls can be used to […]

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