Once a major threat to the tomato industry, the thrips-vectored tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) has been unable to penetrate the vegetable’s latest line of defense — resistant cultivars.

Scientists from the University of Georgia, University of Florida, Clemson and North Carolina State University have collaborated over the last two decades in an effort to try to alleviate what had become a deadly problem. The results have proven to be beneficial and profitable for tomato growers.

“If we hadn’t come up with a solution, it would have killed the tomato industry in Georgia,” said David Riley, a professor of entomology with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Tifton.

Riley is the team leader of the RAMP (Risk Avoidance and Mitigation Program) Project, which compiled data showing that an estimated $9 million was lost in tomato and pepper from 1996 to 2006. The spotted wilt virus had a disastrous effect on the vegetable industry.

“It was bad. If you go back 10 years ago, there were fields that had complete yield loss,” Riley said. “Once you get so much damage in a field, at some point, it becomes un-economical to go in and harvest it. With a tomato crop, nearly half of your production cost is tied up in that harvest. Once your production goes down too low from disease, they’ll just cut it loose and not even go in there. So, not only do the growers lose their tomato crop, temporary workers lose jobs.”

Ten years ago, the tomato crop in Georgia would have been wiped out if resistant varieties weren’t available, he said.

Today, Georgia’s vegetable industry, including the state’s tomato and bell pepper fields, is worth $781 million and accounts for about 10,200 jobs across the state, according to the most recent Georgia Farm Gate Value Report.