Farming site offers worldly advice

July 14, 2013 

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“Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas” (Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart).

— Spanish proverb

David Hughes wasn’t around to see them die, but as an Irishman, he is haunted by the ghosts of the million people who lost their lives between 1845 and 1852 as a result of a potato blight.

Now, the assistant professor of entomology and biology is on a mission to prevent such tragedies from occurring, he said. To do it, he is bucking what he sees as the “elitist” attitudes of academia — namely, that people with doctorate degrees know everything.

Instead, he is using social media to leverage everyday people as sentinels of potentially devastating plant diseases.

“We’re soon going to have a planet with 10 billion people, and food security will be the biggest problem we’ll face,” said Hughes, a tropical ecologist who is an expert on the behavior and ecology of zombie ants. “I feel morally obliged to do something about it.”

Hughes and colleague Marcel Salathé, an assistant professor of biology and former Web developer, have created a website called PlantVillage, a user-moderated question-and-answer forum with the goal of helping people to grow their own food. The site went live in February and already has thousands of users from 180 countries. Later this month, an iPhone app will be available.

Anyone with an interest in food plants can register through the site and post questions; for example, one user recently uploaded a photo and asked, “Both my squash and zucchini plants ended up with strange white spots on their leaves. I wondered if it was a disease?” The best answers get “upvoted” by members of the website, a process whereby the highest-rated answer rises to the top of the conversation, thus saving users from having to sift through less useful answers.

“The more users who upload information to the site, the larger the database becomes and the more useful it will be in tracking the spread of plant diseases,” said Salathé, whose own research examines the use of social media like Twitter to track human diseases.

According to Hughes, PlantVillage could have the potential to track diseases such as the Ug99 wheat stem rust that evolved in Uganda in 1999 and is now spreading throughout the world.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the world’s wheat crops are susceptible to this pathogen; it’s incredibly virulent,” Hughes said. “We have farmers all over the world with mobile phones. If we can get them to use PlantVillage and to post about the diseases they see, we can stop pathogens like Ug99 before they devastate our food crops.”

In addition to collecting data from users, the site also provides standardized information and photographs of more than 150 food plants with more to come.

“It’s amazing that 95 percent of all we eat comes from 15 plants, and yet it’s not possible to find all that information in one open-access location,” Hughes said. “You can find all the pictures of Kim Kardashian you want, but you can’t find the food we rely upon. We should have a place on the Web where all of this information is available.”

To spread the word about the site, the team has written to thousands of master gardeners, farmers, business owners and others. And now, according to Salathé, PlantVillage often shows up on the first page of Google searches about food plants, which is bringing in even more users. The team’s goal, joked Hughes, is world domination — billions of users. Actually, he wasn’t joking.

It’s easy to see how PlantVillage can be a useful tool for scientists to acquire data about the spread of plant diseases, but how useful is the site to others when Joe Schmo is providing the answers to their questions?

“Many people feel that academics should be in charge of creating and sharing knowledge, but I am fundamentally opposed to that model,” Hughes said. “A guy growing corn in Nebraska is going to know a lot more about growing corn in Nebraska than a guy who’s a Ph.D. living in Boston.”

And so it is that Charlie B. from central Iowa provided the answer to the question about spots on squash and zucchini.

“The image on the left (squash) is definitely powdery mildew, a common fungus that often shows up later in the season as the plants are setting fruit,” he wrote. “The image on the right (zucchini) is natural silvering, a genetic (varietal) trait.”

Check out PlantVillage at www.plantvillage.com.

Sara LaJeunesse is a freelance science writer working in State College.

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